Massachusetts Supreme Court Upheld $18 Million Punitive Damages Award in Wrongful Death Action

A 29 year-old woman was visiting relatives in Massachusetts when she tried to use an inflatable swimming pool slide that was imported and sold by Toys R Us, Inc. and, LLC (“Toys R Us”).  As she slid down head first, the slide collapsed when she reached the bottom and her head struck the concrete deck of the swimming pool through the slide’s fabric. Her devastating injuries resulted in quadriplegia. The next day the woman died after her family took her off of life support, in accordance with her wishes.

The death of a loved one is difficult no matter what the circumstances. And when a family member dies due to the negligence of another person or entity, it may be even more difficult to accept.  At the very least, the family may be able to bring a wrongful death lawsuit, in an attempt to hold the negligent parties responsible for their actions, and to recover some of the financial losses that they will now incur. If you or someone you know is confronted with the death of a loved one due to the negligence of another, it is important to contact a local Cape Cod injury attorney who will work to secure the financial recovery to which you may be entitled.

In this case, the decedent’s estate brought an action alleging wrongful death, negligence, and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.  A jury found the company liable for wrongful death, breach of warranty and negligence, awarding over two and a half million dollars in compensatory damages, and $18 million in punitive damages. Toys R Us appealed, maintaining that the award of $18 million in punitive damages was unconstitutional, arguing that it was grossly excessive and violated due process. The Massachusetts wrongful death statute allows for an award of punitive damages where the victim’s death was caused by the “malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct of the defendant or by the gross negligence of the defendant.” The statute sets a minimum award of $5,000, but does not set forth a maximum amount that may be awarded.  In Massachusetts, courts have identified the following two purposes of a punitive damages award: condemnation and deterrence.

The court reviewed three factors (set forth by the United States Supreme Court) in order to determine whether the punitive damages award was excessive. Ultimately, the court concluded that Toys R Us displayed a substantial degree of reprehensibility. To sum it up, while the company was found to be only grossly negligent, rather than malicious or willful, it’s conduct was found to have: 1) caused grievous physical harm to the victim, 2) evinced an indifference to the safety of others, and 3) involved repeated actions.

A wrongful death lawsuit gives the family an opportunity to recover for many kinds of losses, including the loss of the beloved family member, and that person’s companionship, income, parenting, and services. Losing a loved one is a terribly devastating time in a person’s life.  Reaching out to an experienced Cape Cod injury attorney can help a family get through this most difficult time by working to ensure that the negligent party is held accountable for their actions.

John C. Manoog III is a local attorney with experience handling wrongful death cases in Cape Cod.  For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or reach us by email.  There is always someone available to talk to you about your case.

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