Inaccurate talk about “runaway juries” that award extravagant damges without any justification is something about which our Illinois medical malpractice lawyers are quite familiar. Sadly, a misinformation campaign has been somewhat successful perpetrated by big-money interests seeking to enact “reform” legislation to fix problems that are mostly fabricated to begin with. Luckily there are those working every day to share fair and accurate information about all of these issues to fight back against the repeatedly skewed arguments coming from the other side. Considering that some Illinois medical malpractice lawsuits have involved punitive damage awards, it is important to be aware of the purpose and justification behind the legal principle.
For example, late last week the Center for Justice and Democracy released a new white paper called “What You Need to Know About Punitive Damages.” The work is an important effort in spreading accurate information about this unique aspect of the civil justice system in which misinformation abounds. Many community members have heard of these damage awards, but are unfamiliar with how they specifically fit into the legal system and what effect they have on corporate behavior. This ne w effort of scholarship explains the role of punitive damages and sorts through the data to share fair information about how juries award these damages and why.
Those not familiar with the purpose of punitive damages often do not understand why they exist and frequently overestimate how often they are used. As explained in the new paper, these awards are a form of damages that are awarded to a victim following a liable finding in a civil lawsuit with the intention of being a punishment to stop the egregious conduct of the defendant. Even conservative free-market economists have explained how these damage-based incentives help “deter non-cost-justified misconduct so they are essential to a fair, safe, and efficient society.”
The new White Paper explains how, contrary to the misinformation spread by corporate interests, these damages are only rarely sought and even more rarely awarded. Data reveals that punitive damages are only awarded in 5 percent of civil cases and 3 percent of tort cases with plaintiff victims. Beyond that, even when they were awarded they are usually much more modest than is often portrayed-averaging only $55,000 in all tort based lawsuits. The perception that all plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages and receive millions of dollars in a windfall is simply nowhere near accurate.
The paper also explains what our Illinois medical malpractice attorneys know well, that these damages are often vital in spurring needed changes in particularly negligent situations so that future victims are spared. Sadly, in the drive for profits, many of the largest businesses-including medical providers and nursing home caregivers-seem to budget out damages that they will pay because of harm that they cause to innocent consumers. Even when steps could be taken which would minimize that harm, if the company feels that they can save a few bucks by paying out damages in lawsuits instead of fixing the underlying problem, they often decide to just pay out the damages. That means that more and more families are forced to suffer losing relatives unnecessarily because businesses unwillingness to make the choices necessary to prioritize the health and well-being of community members. Punitive damage shift that financial cost assessment when necessary to incentive these companies to make safety changes and protect innocent consumers.
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