It appears the answer is no.
If you litigate personal injury cases, you are likely familiar with a claim for punitive damages. We are aware that punitive damages are reserved for only the most egregious conduct. In Tennessee, in order for a plaintiff to be able to maintain a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was willful, wanton, reckless or intentional. Simple negligence won’t cut it. The ordinary rear-end accident won’t get the plaintiff there. But, throw in an impaired defendant, or maybe a defendant who was driving recklessly or drag racing, and a punitive damage award may be warranted. It’s always going to be a case-by-case basis. But, the focus of this blog is not on what conduct warrants punitive damages.
The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff for their damages. Rather, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer for his or her conduct. Tennessee Pattern Jury Instruction 14.55 is clear as it states “[t]he purpose of punitive damages is not to further compensate the plaintiff but to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from constituting similar wrongs in the future.”
What about a situation where the wrongdoer is not alive? For example, the impaired defendant who caused the crash dies in the crash. Or maybe the impaired defendant who caused the crash lives, but later dies of natural causes while the suit is still pending? Is there a difference? Not according to the law in Tennessee.
Reminder: the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer, not further compensate the plaintiff. If the wrongdoer is not alive, there is no one to punish. The same is true even if a plaintiff is pursuing the estate of a tortfeasor. The estate of the tortfeasor will not be punished by a punitive damages award.
As far back as 1965, Tennessee appellate courts have held that “[p]unitive damages cannot be awarded against the estate of a deceased person. Because the purpose of awarding exemplary damages is to punish the wrongdoer, as a rule his death destroys the right to them and they cannot be recovered against his estate or his heirs or other representatives.” Hayes v. Gill, 216 Tenn. 39 (Tenn. 1965). The Tennessee appellate court went even further in 2014 in Barkhurst v. Benchmark Capital, Inc., where the court stated “[t]here must be a living tortfeasor to punish in order to assess enhanced damages, whether they be punitive or treble damages under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. Barkhurst v. Benchmark Capital, Inc., 2014 Tenn. App. LEXIS 395).
Does the evaluation of a case/claim change in the event a tortfeasor dies in a situation where punitive damages would otherwise be warranted? I’m sure it does. How much? Well, that may be for a jury to decide. Regardless, the ability, or lack thereof, to pursue punitive damages may change how counsel conducts discovery and prepares the case for trial.
Tommy Santel is a co-founding partner of Parkerson Santel Garner PLLC. Tommy is a former government prosecutor. He is a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 General Civil Mediator. Tommy’s practice areas include criminal defense and civil litigation.
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