Illinois Court Clarifies Standard for Claiming Punitive Damages in Negligence Actions

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As Illinois personal injury attorneys, we encounter a wide variety of injuries and traumas. Although some result in temporary pain and injuries that resolve over time, others are life-altering and create devastating consequences for the victim and his or her family. Although no amount of money can truly compensate you and your family for your pain and loss, it can help you cope with the stress, suffering, and financial impact.

In a recent Illinois appellate opinion, the plaintiff filed a negligent employment action against a church based in Chicago, alleging that one of its former priests engaged in sexual abuse and molestation of the plaintiff when he attended a school associated with the church. The plaintiff asserted a claim for punitive damages, which is a distinct category of damages designed to punish a defendant for particularly egregious, wanton, and reckless conduct. During the trial, the lower court certified a question for the higher court to answer regarding this claim for damages. Specifically, the court asked whether a punitive damages claim requires proof that the employer consciously disregarded the employee’s “particular unfitness” when the underlying cause of action is negligent hiring, retention, or supervision of the employee.

In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant consciously disregarded known risks regarding the abuser and the risk that he posed to the church’s congregation and students. The plaintiff included a variety of evidence in support of this allegation. He alleged that the defendant knew that there was an ongoing and widespread scandal involving sexual misconduct at similar churches, that the defendant failed to keep adequate record-keeping policies regarding reports of abuse, and that the church had knowledge of prior misconduct involving the abuser while he was a student at a seminary school. Finally, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant did not take adequate steps to investigate reports that the abuser engaged in misconduct after he became ordained and failed to report incidents of suspicious conduct involving minors to the Department of Children and Family Services.

In reviewing these allegations and the lower court’s certified question, the appellate court first noted that punitive damages are not intended to serve as compensation to the plaintiff but as punishment for the defendant. The Illinois Supreme Court has declared that punitive damages are appropriate in cases involving actual malice, deliberate oppression, and violence, fraud, or gross negligence evidencing a wanton disregard for the rights of others. The court rejected the defendant’s contention that the plaintiff would need to prove that the defendant had actual knowledge of the abuser’s tendency for committing sexual abuse against children, noting that a party’s knowledge of associated circumstances and indifference to or knowing disregard of others’ safety are also probative in determining whether punitive damages are appropriate in a negligence action claiming injuries.

Ultimately, the court declared that a lower court can permit a claim for punitive damages if the evidence supports a finding that the defendant acted willfully or with gross negligence indicating a conscious disregard for the safety of others.

If you have suffered injuries as a result of another person’s reckless or willful conduct, you may be entitled to compensation. At Therman Law Offices, we have provided compassionate, understanding, and reliable legal counsel to Illinois residents in a wide variety of lawsuits, including car accidents, dog bites, and boating accident cases. To set up your free consultation, call us now at 773-545-8849 or contact us online.

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