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Should Washington State Allow Punitive Damages for Outrageous Conduct?

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I bet that most citizens have no idea that Washington State does not allow punitive damages.  In fact, Washington is in the minority compared with the other 49 states. 

Currently, there are just four (4) states , including Washington State, in the United States that do not allow punitive damages to be assessed against a wrongdoer for committing intentional, outrageous or reckless conduct. 

As the name suggests, “punitive damages” are a form of punishment.  Punitive damages are usually not allowed to be awarded unless the defendant’s conduct is found to be malicious, intentional, outrageous or reckless.  

The defendant’s conduct must be much worse than simple ordinary negligence before punitive damages can be imposed.  The term “negligence” is defined as the failure to exercise ordinary care.

In most of the 46 states that do allow punitive damages, the purpose of the award is not to benefit the plaintiff or plaintiffs.  Instead, the focus of a punitive award is instead to deter the defendant’s future conduct, or the future conduct of others, by applying an extra level of damages.

While 46 states in the U.S. do allow punitive damages, most of these states also have some restriction or limitation on when they can be awarded and the maximum amount that may be awarded by a jury.  In about half of these states, the punitive damage award must also be shared with the state government.   

I strongly believe that the Washington Legislature should enact a punitive damage law to hold egregious wrongdoers responsible for their bad conduct.

For instance, a drunk driver who kills another person will only serve a maximum of 3.5 years in prison under current Washington State law.  In many cases the jail time will be substantially reduced due to good behavior and a first offense. 

A punitive damages law will also help to financially punish those DUI drivers in Washington State for killing innocent citizens and deter future similar conduct among others.  Most people will agree that “driving drunk” is reckless and outrageous, particularly when someone is killed or seriously maimed. 

Drinking and driving is the type of egregious wrongful conduct that should warrant a much higher civil penalty imposed upon the perpetrator when an innocent person is seriously harmed.

Recently, the Washington State Legislature rejected a bill that would have increased the maximum jail time from 3.5 years to 8.5 years for a DUI related death. This surprised me since a maximum sentence of just 3.5 years is woefully inadequate to punish someone for taking the life of an innocent person.

If our legislature rejects more jail time for drunk drivers, than why not allow an innocent victim or the victim’s family to recover punitive damages instead?  A drunk driver who kills should at least be subject to financial punishment, if not more jail time.  It only seems fair.

 

Christopher Davis
Top-rated, award-winning, civil litigation attorney practicing wrongful death & serious injury law in Seattle.
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