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Punitive damages in Wisconsin: A high standard

When people have suffered a loss, it's not unusual for there to be great emotional upheaval within the family. It can be anything from a loved one's death unexpectedly causing great sadness to anger and resentment at damage to property or business. When it is because of the actions of another, victims often feel the need to punish whoever is at fault.

It's important for Wisconsin residents to understand these feelings won't be taken lightly by the courts, juries and legal counsel. Particularly in wrongful death claims, it's possible that some means of punishment can be effected through a punitive damages award. But it is also important for survivors to comprehend that punitive damage awards are rare and only can be awarded when outrageous conduct is found.

Designed by law as punishment and a deterrent to repeat actions, Wisconsin sets a high standard to be met in any civil action requesting punitive damages. A defendant's misconduct must be malicious or be based on intentional disregard for the rights of others. Negligence doesn't qualify.

An example of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's position is regarding drunk drivers, a situation where punitive damages are often requested. The court noted that only when a drunk driver's conduct is so aggravated that the elevated standard of intentional disregard of rights applies should a circuit court jury consider a punitive damage award. In other words, it had to meet the standard of outrageous behavior.

Another type of wrongful death claim can be as a result of product liability. Not only can a punitive damages award have devastating economic impact on a small business, for big manufacturers, it can create safety awareness in the marketplace that affects sales. This can precipitate a product improvement. Examples where this happened in the past are with flammable children's pajamas and asbestos products being taken off the market. Punitive damages were allowed because it was proved manufacturers were aware of the hazard, but failed to disclose it to the public.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that punitive damages in general must be reasonable and not grossly excessive. They can be appropriately awarded in Wisconsin, however, when the cause of action is based on a deliberate and aggravated disregard for someone's right to safety, health, life or property right.

Source: Wisconsin Association for Justice, "Truth About the Civil Justice System" accessed Mar. 06, 2015

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