The South Dakota Supreme Court recently decided a case in which they affirmed a lower court's award of financial sanctions to a negligent defendant in a failure-to-yield accident case. The court ruled that the plaintiff and her attorney wrongfully demanded punitive damages against the defendant in an effort to harass her into a settlement, and without a good-faith basis to do so. The Court found that the plaintiff''s attorney did not pursue an adequate investigation into the facts and law surrounding the case, and he should not have continued to demand punitive damages after the discovery phase of the case was completed.
Because of this ruling, the accident victim may be required to pay the attorney’s fees incurred by the defendant in defending against the claim for punitive damages, and her compensation for the injuries she sustained because of the defendant’s admitted negligence could be reduced by this amount.
What Happened in the Crash, and Why Did the Plaintiff Demand Punitive Damages?
The case of Smizer v. Drey was initially filed by a woman who was involved in an accident with the defendant at an intersection in rural South Dakota. According to the findings of the trial court, the defendant and the plaintiff were each traveling on perpendicular roads toward the intersection, which was controlled by yield signs on the road the defendant was driving on, giving the plaintiff the right of way to proceed through the intersection. Instead of yielding the right of way to the plaintiff, the defendant admitted that she slowed down, thought that the road was clear, and proceeded through the intersection, causing the crash that injured the plaintiff.
Once the case was filed, the defendant admitted her negligence in failing to yield at the intersection. However, the plaintiff alleged that her failure to yield warranted attorney’s fees and punitive damages, which are designed to punish a defendant for especially reprehensible willful conduct or extreme acts of gross negligence. At a hearing regarding the request for attorney’s fees, the court disagreed with the plaintiff that the defendant''s conduct was more than simple negligence, and the request was dismissed. After the attorney’s fees request was dismissed, the plaintiff continued to request punitive damages. The plaintiff''s counsel communicated with the defendant, claiming that a punitive damages award would be likely, urging them to enter into a settlement based on that fact.
Both Courts Find that Punitive Damages Would Be Inappropriate, and the Plaintiff's Demand for Such Damages Was Made in Bad Faith
After discovery was completed and the parties had obtained all of the evidence needed for the case, the trial court decided that all of the claims for liability could be resolved without a trial. The court found that the defendant was negligent in failing to yield, but there was no evidence that the negligence was sufficient for an award of punitive damages. The judge also ruled that the plaintiff should not have pressed the punitive damages request after the attorney’s fees issue was resolved, and discovery had revealed no evidence suggesting punitive damages were appropriate.
The defendant was awarded sanctions against the plaintiff for the inappropriate punitive damages request and would not need to pay her own attorney’s fees for defending against the punitive damages claims. On appeal, the court agreed with the facts and analysis of the lower court, and it upheld the sanctions. As a result, the plaintiff was ultimately hurt by her attempt to get punitive damages in this case.
Requests for Punitive Damages in an Illinois Accident Case, and the Possibility of Sanctions
As with cases in South Dakota, Illinois personal injury lawsuits may be an appropriate proceeding for a plaintiff to be awarded punitive damages, but it is important for a plaintiff to only request such damages when there is a good-faith reason to do so. In some instances, an Illinois accident plaintiff''s decision to request and demand punitive damages without adequately investigating the facts and law that justify such damages could result in an award of sanctions or attorney’s fees against the plaintiff. It is essential for accident victims to retain an Illinois injury attorney whoÂ has a detailed knowledge of the relevant laws surrounding special and punitive damages in order to avoid an award of sanctions against them.
Should You Discuss Your Case With an Attorney?
If you or a family member has been injured or killed in a car or truck accident, the experienced Illinois personal injury attorneys at Cavanagh Law Group have the knowledge and resources to pursue your case without putting you at risk of being sanctioned by the court. Our professional attorneys and staff have helped thousands of clients get the compensation they deserve. Contact us today. At Cavanagh Law Group, we represent clients in most personal injury and wrongful death cases in Illinois and beyond.