Sunday, January 27, 2008, 9:38 AM

SCT: Punitive Damages Unavailable Against Deceased Wrongdoer

On Friday, in Harrell v. Bowen, the NC Supreme Court held that punitive damages are unavailable when the wrongdoer is dead.

Writing for the Court, Justice Brady relied on the plain meaning of G.S. § 1D-1. Entitled "Purpose of punitive damages," it provides: “Punitive damages may be awarded, in an appropriate case and subject to the provisions of this Chapter, to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.” (Emphasis added) Relying on the conjunctive phrasing of that sentence, the Court held that punitive damages can't be imposed unless they accomplish all three statutory objectives: punishing the defendant, deterring the defendant, and deterring others. Because a dead person can't be punished or deterred, two of the three statutory objectives can't be accomplished when the wrongdoer has died. Thus, the Court held, punitive damages can't be assessed against a decedent's estate. Of course, the General Assembly may provide otherwise by amending the statute.

Justices Newby and Hudson dissented. They'd permit punitive damages to be awarded solely to deter others, even if the wrongdoer, having died, can't be punished or deterred.


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