An interesting story recently unfolded in West Virginia, where the State Supreme Court prepared to undertake a review of potential caps on punitive damages against nursing homes following a trial where a jury awarded $91.5 million after a nursing home resident allegedly died of complications from dehydration and neglect.
The report indicates that the jury apportioned approximately $11 million of the award for compensatory damages and approximately $80 million in punitive damages — damages intended to punish and deter future instances of similar conduct.
In Illinois, however, a fight such as this would be grounded from the very beginning, unfortunately. Very recently (March 2011, to be exact), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that punitive damages are allowed in a lawsuit based on the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act — provided, however, that the plaintiff did not die as a result of the incident in question.
In Vincent v. Alden-Park Strathmoor, Inc., the Supreme Court conducted a very thorough analysis of the issue of where punitive damages under this Act come from and where they end. Unlike a previous version of the Nursing Home Care Act that provided for punitive “treble” damages (in lay terms, multiply the amount of damages by three), the current version of the Act has no provision for punitive damages.
A right to punitive damages, therefore, has to come from traditional tort law of “willful and wanton” behavior. This, according to the Vincent Court, would allow for traditional punitive damages under the Act. However, since punitive damages are not mentioned in the Act itself, the Supreme Court latched onto other traditional concepts of tort law providing that punitive damages can’t be part of a wrongful death action brought by someone’s relatives (otherwise known as a “survival action”) unless the right to do so is affirmatively granted by a particular law.
Because of this, Illinois finds itself in the unique position of allowing living plaintiffs to ask a jury for punitive damages when a nursing home violates their rights, but not their surviving family members.
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