Friday, August 05, 2011

Fresh Law

The Iowa Supreme Court has a couple of new cases up today. IOWA SUPREME COURT ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY BOARD vs. ERIC K. PARRISH is a typical "don't steal money from your clients by paying yourself out of the retainer before you've earned the money" case. But VAJGRT v. ERNST is an interesting debate on whether punitive damages should survive the death of the tortfeasor.

The basic facts are that a tree fell down across a creek, and there became a concern that flooding would occur. The neighbor who would've been flooded got permission from the landowner to go onto the property and remove the tree while the landowner was on vacation. Instead of just removing the tree, he also took about 40 live trees out. Not cool. But the landowner then waited to file suit until after the neighbor who cut the trees was dead. We have no idea why. Landowner sued for the value of the trees plus punitive (punishment) damages. NOTE: if he'd sued earlier he could've gotten triple damages under the Iowa Code for live tree damage. But that goes away after a couple of years, so he was SOL on that count.

Punitive damages are special damages to punish someone who has done a wrong that is either intentional or very reckless - something where you think they either did it on purpose or it's so obvious that they should have known better. It's where you want to send a special message to never, never do something like that again. Iowa has always held that punitive damages aren't recoverable after the person who did the act is dead. Basically, the reasoning is that the person really isn't going to be doing anything again, and why punish their innocent relatives? This case asked the Supremes to review that rule and consider overturning it. One argument was that punitive damages can also deter other people from acting in the same way and will set an example for the community. There was also an argument that we still allow lawsuits in general against people's estates, so why should punitive damages not survive as a cause of action?

The majority declined to overturn the rule, indicating that they still agree with the rationales for making punitive damages go away upon death. They also pointed out that punitives are not a cause of action in and of themselves, they are just a punishment enhancement tacked on to the main cause of action. So it makes no sense to say they should survive as a "cause of action" when they aren't actually a "cause of action."

The dissent posed a hypothetical in which one person was in a coma from which they will never recover, and another was dead, asked why we allow punitive damages against the one and not the other. They also found the community deterrent rationale persuasive.

My take: I agree with the majority. First, I don't buy the whole community deterrent idea on a practical level. I just don't see some Iowa farmer with terminal cancer saying, "You know, I could sneak in and cut down all these other trees too, but I won't. Because what if I get caught and there's punitive damages and when I die my kids will lose the farm?" I mean, people have better things to do if they know that they are dying. If they don't know that they're dying, why would they think that some obscure "punitive damages after you're dead" rule would apply to them, even presuming they had ever heard of such a thing? Secondly, I do see a difference between the tortfeasor in a coma and the one in the morgue. One is dead and the other one isn't. Simple, bright-line rule.

Finally, the takeaway: why the heck would you wait over two years and until the guy is dead to file suit anyway? It's not like this was a med mal and you just discovered some injury. I mean, seriously. Snooze you lose.

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