When are Punitive Damages Available under Massachusetts Law?

Under Massachusetts law, there are several types of damages an injured person can recover through civil action: economic damages, which cover medical expenses, continuing medical care, lost wages, and inability to earn future income; and non-economic damages, which include pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment, and disfigurement. In recent news, a Florida jury awarded $23.6 billion in punitive damages to a widow who lost her husband in 1996 to lung cancer. The widow alleged that the tobacco industry failed to warn her husband that nicotine was addictive and can cause lung cancer. The deceased husband smoked from age 13 till his death at age 36.

Punitive damages are damages designed to punish through monetary means and discourage similar behavior in the future by the at-fault party and the general public. They are reserved for the most egregious and outrageous behavior by at-fault parties. In Massachusetts, punitive damages are only available if granted by statute. (See International Fid. Ins. Co. v. Wilson, 443 N.E.2d 1308 (1983).) Examples of actions that allow punitive damages are wrongful death actions under Chapter 229, Section 2 and employee discrimination actions under Chapter 151B. Punitive damages are available for medical malpractice suits, but those have a cap of $500,000 unless the injury is catastrophic. Massachusetts case law has established that punitive damages are only available for conduct that is outrageous due to the defendant’s evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others.

In Haddad v. Wal-mart Stores, Inc., 455 Mass. 91 (2009), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinstated a $1 million punitive damage jury verdict for a woman who sued her employer, Wal-mart, for discrimination in violation of Chapter 151. In this case, the woman was awarded $972,774 in compensatory damages, but the judge set aside the $1 million punitive award, reasoning that punitive damages could only have been awarded if the employer acted with the specific knowledge it was violating the anti-discrimination statute. The Supreme Judicial Court noted in its decision that this requirement only applied to age discrimination cases. The Court also referred to prior rulings that held if the employer unlawfully interfered with the legally protected rights of others, that would be enough “reckless indifference” to warrant punitive damages. The Court noted the history of refusing to pay the hourly differential to the plaintiff, a female pharmacist, and firing her for one offense after 10 years of employment equated to egregious behavior.

A more recent Massachusetts case re-established that punitive damages can only be awarded in addition to compensatory damages. In Kiely v. Teradyne, the jury awarded $1.1 million in punitive damages but did not find that the plaintiff was injured, nor did they award any compensatory damages. The trial judge, as in Haddad, set aside the award, but this time the Appeals Court agreed. In its determination, the Appeals Court considered the underlying circumstances in comparison to the facts in previous cases where punitive damage awards were upheld. The Appeals Court did not feel the evidence rose to the level of egregious or outrageous behavior. The Appeals Court also heavily weighed the fact that the jury declined to award compensatory damages, thus failing to find that she suffered any actual harm from the company’s actions. Ultimately the Appeals Court highlighted that Massachusetts law has confirmed that mere liability is not enough for an injured person to qualify for punitive damages.

If you’ve been injured while at work or in a car accident, the Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the experience to help you recover the money you need for medical bills and lost wages. We understand that each case is unique, and we are here to help you determine what type of damages apply to your case. Regardless of what legal course of action we pursue, we will work tirelessly on your case to maximize your damages. For a free consultation, contact our office at 508.822.6600.

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