In a recent personal injury case in another state, a jury awarded $7 billion (yes, that is with a “b”) in punitive damages to the family of a lady who was murdered by her cable repairman. This award was on top of $375 million in actual compensatory damages for the personal injury case.
Could something like this happen in a Maryland personal injury case? What would it take to make a claim for punitive damages in a lawsuit in Maryland?
The award was against the cable company for a long list of negligent failures (see below). The biggest part of the award – the part that made this newsworthy and raised some eyebrows in the legal field – was the punitive damages award.
In personal injury cases, compensatory damages are directly related to the accident. They are designed to compensate the victim of the accident for the real damages they suffered. Punitive damages are strictly designed to punish the conduct of the Defendant, and to deter future conduct of the same sort. They do not relate to the actual damages suffered by the Plaintiff.
The Case Details
If you want to read all the gory details of the case, google Charter Spectrum and Texas and Roy Holden. Those are the major players and lots of articles will come up.
Charter definitely did not handle this well. Among other things, they destroyed evidence, sent her a bill for the repair that lead to her murder, and even forged the dead lady’s signature on a service agreement to try and force her into arbitration. That is pretty outrageous, to be sure!
They also failed to take action when their employee was having a nervous breakdown. He was claiming to be a former Dallas Cowboy player who had been paralyzed. Obviously, he was lying and this should have been a major red flag that he wasn’t well.
So we can probably agree this company stinks and needs a serious customer service overhaul. But does that make them legally liable for a wrongful death claim by the family of the dead lady? The murderer was off duty at the time and was engaged in a theft scheme when she died. He wasn’t in the act of repairing her cable!
Well this jury not only found the Defendant cable company liable for wrongful death, but they decided to slam them with an extremely large punitive damages award too!
What About Punitive Damages in Maryland?
So, could this possibly happen in a Maryland personal injury case? The short answer is – probably not.
Maryland has very, very conservative laws in personal injury cases. One of them is the very tight limit on when a jury can consider or award punitive damages. In Maryland, you must show the Defendant acted with “actual malice” in order to even consider punitive damages.
That means that if this lawsuit were in Maryland, you would have to prove the cable company meant for their technician to harm the victim. That isn’t the case here!
They may have been negligent, but they weren’t trying to kill their customer. And that is precisely what you have to find in Maryland to even present a punitive damages claim to a jury.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t come up very often in Maryland. I have done a lot of car accident and other personal injury claims, but I rarely have seen the case where the defendant was trying to hurt the plaintiff.
Usually, the defendant in a personal injury case is just negligent. Sometimes they may be outrageously negligent, but they are rarely doing it on purpose.
Conclusion & Next Steps
So while this case is certainly interesting, it would likely never happen in Maryland. I will be interested to see what happens on appeal. And you can be sure that for this sort of money – it will be appealed!
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