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Are punitive damages awarded in Massachusetts personal injury cases?

The most tragic aspect of being a personal injury attorney in Massachusetts is the human aspect: all too often, we help people who have been injured, often severely and in some cases having suffered life-threatening injuries. In some cases, we help families of those whose loved ones died as a result of the negligence of another. The law is an efficient vehicle and useful tool for the injured to obtain justice.

When a client is injured, a personal injury attorney works to obtain compensatory damages on behalf of his or her clients. Compensatory damages include actual, pecuniary damages, such as medical and therapy bills, lost wages, mechanic bills and damages for property loss. They also include non-pecuniary damages which cannot always be readily ascertained, such as pain and suffering, damages for disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life and its activities, and loss of future wages.

In addition to the above, under some very specific circumstances, Massachusetts law allows for the recovery of punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for his or her negligent actions, and to deter the defendant (and others) from committing the same actions in the future.

Suppose that a family is driving in their sedan on their way home from a soccer game. Suddenly, a huge truck swerves into the lane in which the family is driving on the highway, causing a collision. As it turns out, the accident occurred because the driver of the truck was under the influence of prescription medication which made him drowsy. The driver also had not slept for more than forty hours at the time of the collision.

The family members are hurt in the accident; in fact, their injuries are severe. Their car is a total loss. Sadly, one of the parents has suffered life-threatening injuries during the accident, and she dies on the way to the hospital. The spouse of the deceased knows that he may be able to recover monetary relief for the family’s medical bills, mechanics fees, and lost wages—but will he be able to collect punitive damages for the conduct of the truck driver as well?

Punitive damages are intended to punish a tortfeasor for wrongful conduct. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish and deter the wrongdoer beyond the compensatory damage award. In Massachusetts, the law states that someone may only recover punitive damages if gross negligence or willful or wanton conduct causes a death. In other words, severe injuries alone are not enough to recover punitive damages: these damages are available to a plaintiff only in cases of wrongful death, where a death resulted directly from the defendant’s negligence or willful or wanton conduct.

Massachusetts courts define gross negligence as a higher magnitude of negligence, greater than ordinary negligence. The Massachusetts courts defined gross negligence in one case as “materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or slight diligence, or the want of event scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected.”

The family in the situation described above may be able to recover punitive damages, so long as the estate of the deceased mother can prove gross negligence on the part of the truck driver. In doing so, the estate will need to prove that the actions of the truck driver in taking the medication and knowingly getting behind the wheel without proper rest constituted an act of great negligence, beyond the requirements of failure to exercise ordinary care.

If you or one of your family members has suffered personal injuries, you should speak with competent personal injury counsel. The loss of a loved one is one of the most tragic sufferings that anyone could experience. It is a time when the one or ones left behind ought to focus on their grief and not the legal aspects of the incident. Please speak with an empathetic professional who may obtain the relief that you and your family deserve. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced professional within our offices. Call 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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