Courts have the power to award two different types of damages in West Virginia personal injury cases: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to make the injured person “whole” by compensating the person for related medical costs, missed wages resulting from time away from work, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. Punitive damages are designed to punish a person or entity being sued for particularly callous behavior.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia recently explained in a medical malpractice case some of the requirements that a person must meet in order to assert a claim for punitive damages. Although the standard was recently changed, the case gives a good example of what courts look at when considering punitive damages claims.
Mother and Father sued an emergency room doctor and his hospital employer in March 2015, alleging that the doctor’s negligence contributed to their baby son’s death. Among other claims, the parents said the doctor failed to take into account when treating the baby that he showed signs of hemophilia – a rare blood disorder – and to take adequate steps to address the condition. They argued that both the doctor and the hospital failed to live up to the “duty of care” required of a physician and a hospital under the circumstances and that the hospital fraudulently misrepresented the quality of services provided in advertisements touting the expertise of their doctors. The parents asked the Court to award them both compensatory and punitive damages.
The doctor and hospital defended the claims in part by asking the Court to dismiss the punitive damages portion. They argued that the parents had failed to allege claims that could conceivably entitle them to such damages. To the extent that they alleged claims for “heightened negligence,” the doctor and hospital said the parents failed to provide any factual allegations to back them up.
The District Court disagreed, finding that the parents adequately alleged that the doctor’s negligence rose to a level that would support a punitive damages award, if proved at trial. “Under West Virginia law, punitive damages can be awarded in tort actions where gross fraud, malice, oppression, or wanton, willful, or reckless conduct or criminal indifference to civil obligations affecting the rights of others appear, or where legislative enactment authorizes it,” the Court explained. The law was tweaked earlier this year to require proof of “actual malice toward the plaintiff or a conscious, reckless and outrageous indifference to the health, safety and welfare of others,” but the Court said the new standard didn’t apply to this case.
Here, the Court said the parents laid out a detailed timeline of their son’s medical problems and treatment in the emergency room. If they were ultimately able to prove that timeline, the Court said they may be able to also prove that the doctor acted with reckless disregard for the child’s life by failing to acknowledge or treat the hemophilia symptoms. It further ruled that punitive damages could potentially be awarded against the hospital for fraudulent misrepresentation.
Punitive damages is just one of the many complicated issues that can come up in a personal injury case. If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of inadequate medical care, call the West Virginia medical malpractice lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm for help. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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