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Protecting Wrongdoers and Punitive Damages

     After a good weekend plus a Colts win, I usually stay away from negative. This time, I am getting something off my chest! 

     At the end of October, a group of distinguished lawyers, judges and law professors got together at the Homestead to discuss issues in the law. The group meeting is called the Boyd-Graves Conference.

     The background for the formation of this group is best said on it’s website:   “The Boyd-Graves Conference was created by the late Thomas V. Monahan, a former VBA president, who believed that civil practice in Virginia would be improved if lawyers with different types of practices, from all regions of the state, would meet and attempt to reach consensus about ways to improve the law.” It was formed in 1978 and has been very helpful in addressing question and needs of law and practice.

     This October meeting did make several significant recommendations. Then, the issue of Virginia’s laws regarding punitive damages immediately ran into a group obstacle.  

     Right now, Virginia has a state cap of punitive damages in the amount of $350,000. That means that if an entity, company or individual is found by a jury to have done or committed an act that is “willful and wanton”, which is worse than negligence. There are several legal terms for it, but basically it is willful and egregious conduct. It basically almost has to be intentional or just a disregard of doing what is right. I probably am not even describing the standard strict enough.

     Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant; deter such future conduct by that defendant as well as others in the future;  and in doing so, protect the citizens of the state where the punitive damages are part of a verdict.

         I know I am getting too much legal stuff… but here comes the meat of my blog.

     The cap of $350,000 was enacted in 1988. If adjusted for inflation, the cap would now be approximately $677,000 without any real increase. Still, Boyd-Graves rejected any proposal to eliminate the cap or even raise it to a mere increase of $500,000.

     When you hear the term a “business-friendly” state, you assume that it is helpful to attract businesses to Virginia. In fact, it probably does. However, I really wonder if anyone really finds out what the state caps on punitive damages are, before relocating to that state. If they do, I don’t think that is really the kind of business that we should want to open up here. Instead, I would think that they are mainly looking for tax incentives. 

     I could get stirred up more about this. A business that generates billions in revenue can create a product that they know will kill Virginia citizens. Then, they know that they are only going to be punished in an amount of 350K maximum. It can be something added to their projected balance sheet.

     In past lawsuits, there have been many memos uncovered that showed businesses considering the expense of injury versus profit. Profitability… that doesn’t mean protection for Virginia citizens. To me, I don’t think that a business should be able to weigh its conduct against what the margin of expense per violation or lawsuit in punitive might be. Punishment should really be punishment. For most big businesses, 350K has no meaningful message.  I just thought that this is topical, with an election on Tuesday.

     For pic o’ day, I am posting one of my Dad on a recent vacation. It makes me smile. (Sorry Dad!!!!!)


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