Iowa Supreme Court Upholds 127 Year-Old Rule That Estates Are Not Responsible For Punitive Damages

The Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision today that again addressed the question of whether an estate is liable for punitive damages based on actions of the deceased that occurred before death.  This ruling could apply to a personal injury or wrongful death suit, motor vehicle accident claim, dog bite claim, construction defect claim, business practices or contract law claim, or insurance law claim.

The case is In The Matter of the Estate of Johnny Vajgrt.  Here’s the link to the decision: http://www.iowacourts.gov/Supreme_Court/Recent_Opinions/20110805/10-1088.pdf

Iowa hasn’t allowed punitive damages claims against estates since 1884.  That rule is premised on the idea that, since punitive damages are intended to punish, they serve no purpose once the person to be punished is dead.  Only compensatory damages can be recovered against an estate.

A dissent was offered by Justice Hecht.  I agree with his position that, since punitive damages are also intended to deter other people from engaging in the same or similar conduct, foreclosing punitive damages just because someone has died makes no sense.  That person may no longer care about being punished, but a punitive damages award against that person’s estate may serve as a warning to others.

 

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