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Punitive Damages Against an Estate Blocked by Court

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled today that a plaintiff is not entitled to recover punitive damages from an Estate of a tortfeasor.  In the matter of Harrell v. Estate of Perry, the COA addressed an appeal from a Superior Court where the Superior Court had ruled that pursuant to NC Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)6, the Plaintiff had failed to state a claim upon which releif can be granted under some legal theory.  The gist of the opinion is that punitive damages are awarded to punish the wrongdoer, and the death of the wrong doer precludes his being punished by the assessment of punitive damages.

Drunk Defendant Dies After Injuring Plaintiff
The opinion of the COA is light on facts, but does cite that the Plaintiff alleges he was injured in a motor vehicle collision caused by an intoxicated defendant.

The Plaintiff brought a case for compensatory and punitive damages and the defendant moved to dismiss under 12(b)6.

Levinson: You Can't Deter the Dead with Punitives
Judge Levinson, writing for the panel, cited a 1982 decision that held that punitive damages were not appropriate against a deceased defendant.  The issue in this case was whether the 1996 amendment to the punitive damages statute, N.C. Gen Stat. § 1D-1, expanded the scope of punitive damages in the section that states that punitive damages may be awarded:

“to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”

And, But or Or Won't Get You Very Far
While the Plaintiff argued the obvious policy reasons behind the statute, that punitives should be awarded against an estate to discourage similar bad behavior of people that are living, the COA dodged that policy discussion through statutory interpretation.

Judge Levinson wrote:

     It is a common rule of statutory construction that “when the conjunctive 'and' connects words, phrases or clauses of a statutory sentence, they are to beconsidered jointly.”  Lithium Corp v. Bessemer City, 261 N.C. 532, 535, 135 S.E.2d 574, 577 (1964).  Thus, an individual is subject to punitive damages where he or she may be punished for the egregiously wrongful act and be deterred from committing such an act in the future.
    In the instant case, defendant died sometime before plaintiff filed the subject complaint.  Because defendant is deceased, deterring him from committing a similar wrongful act in the future is, of course, not possible.  Consequently, the statutory mandate of G.S. § 1D-1, providing that the appropriateness of punitive damages is contingent upon punishing and deterring defendant from engaging in similar conduct in the future, cannot be achieved.

So there you have it.  The "and" means that if punitives deter someone else, that's great, but that alone will not allow punitive damages to be granted.  You need a live tortfeasor to punish first.

I don't particularly agree with this interpretation.  To me, the "plain meaning" of the statute is that it is meant to deter other acts like this, whether they be from the defendant or from other similarly situated defendants.

-Chris Nichols 1.800.906.5984


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