Can punitive damages be awarded against the estate of a deceased wrongdoer? That was the question before us – the Ohio Supreme Court – in a case that involved a woman named Christine Whetstone.
On June 29, 2010, Christine dropped off her daughters, five-year-old O.C. and two-year-old L.C., at the home of their great-aunt, Roxanne McClellan, who was to baby-sit. When Christine returned to McClellan’s home, she entered a bedroom and found McClellan with one hand on O.C.’s neck and the other hand holding a pillow over her face.
Christine struggled with McClellan and eventually freed O.C., then fled the house with O.C. and L.C., who had remained asleep in the bedroom during the incident. Christine immediately reported the incident to the police and took O.C. to the emergency room. There, the physician noted O.C.’s injuries, including a mark on her cheek, scratches on her chin and chest, and a hemorrhage in her eye.
After the incident, Christine and her daughters attended counseling and were eventually diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. Christine had nightmares, anxiety, and anger, while her daughters had trouble sleeping and continued to fear McClellan.
On October 1, 2010, Christine filed a civil suit against McClellan for – among other things – assault, false imprisonment and emotional distress. She requested compensatory and punitive damages.
The purpose of punitive damages is twofold – to punish the wrongdoer and to make that person an example to others – thereby deterring others from similar behavior. The deterrence is intended to be both specific to a particular wrongdoer and general as an example to others.
After McClellan failed to respond to the complaint, the trial court entered a default judgment against her. The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing on damages for January 2011.
But before that date, McClellan filed a motion for relief from the default judgment – she claimed she was unaware of the complaint until after the deadline for filing an answer had passed. She also disclosed that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments since October 2010. McClellan requested a postponement of the damages hearing because she was scheduled for a treatment on the same day as that hearing. The hearing was postponed.
In April 2011, the court denied McClellan’s request for relief from default judgment and stated that it would reschedule a damages hearing. McClellan died a few days later, before the damages hearing was rescheduled. Later, the court granted Christine’s motion to substitute Erin Binner – the administrator of McClellan’s estate – as a party.
When the damages hearing eventually took place, the court heard testimony from Christine, O.C., and a social worker who provided counseling services to Christine and her daughters. Binner appeared and was represented by an attorney.
On May 7, 2013, the trial court awarded limited compensatory damages to Christine and L.C. and $50,000 in compensatory damages to O.C. But the court concluded that punitive damages could not be properly awarded against the estate of a deceased tortfeasor (the word “tortfeasor” is the legal term for a wrongdoer.) Because damages were not awarded, the court determined that an award of attorney fees was unwarranted.
The court of appeals reversed that ruling, holding that an award of punitive damages against a deceased tortfeasor is permissible under Ohio law. After the court of appeals issued its ruling, the case came before us.
Ohio law is well settled that punitive damages are available for personal injury or property loss caused by malice or intentional, reckless and willful acts. The right to punitive damages continues when an injured plaintiff has died and the plaintiff’s claim is pursued by a representative of his estate. But our court has never considered whether punitive damages can be imposed against a deceased tortfeasor.
The court of appeals correctly noted that the majority of other jurisdictions prohibit punitive-damages awards against a deceased tortfeasor. “The reasoning behind these decisions is essentially that the primary purposes of imposing punitive damages are not furthered when the tortfeasor is deceased,” because the deterrence element of awarding punitive damages is speculative if there’s a perception that the estate, rather than the tortfeasor, is being punished.
Nonetheless, there are some jurisdictions that have allowed recovery of punitive damages when the tortfeasor has died. And, in Ohio, there’s no law that prohibits imposing punitive damages on a deceased tortfeasor.
In Christine’s case, the trial court entered a default judgment five months before McClellan’s death. And prior to McClellan’s death, the trial court denied her request for relief from the default judgment. Thus, the court determined – before McClellan’s death – that she was liable for assault, false imprisonment and emotional distress and that these acts were committed with malice and were egregious. Therefore, McClellan – and her estate after her death – faced the potential award of punitive damages.
The liability determination against McClellan triggered the availability of compensatory and punitive damages while she was alive. If it hadn’t been for the postponement of the damages hearing – at McClellan’s request – the hearing could have occurred while she was living.
Even after McClellan’s death, Binner participated as a representative of McClellan’s estate. The trial court awarded compensatory damages, but declined to award punitive damages due to McClellan’s death. We determined that it was error to do so.
In cases in which liability has been determined while the tortfeasor is alive, we concluded that punitive damages are available to the plaintiff. To hold otherwise would send a message that by delaying a damages hearing, defendants or their estates might avoid the award of punitive damages.
Allowing an award of punitive damages when liability has been determined prior to a tortfeasor’s death still accomplishes the general deterrence purpose of such awards.
We did not determine whether McClellan’s actions warrant a punitive-damages award in any amount. Rather, we only concluded that a hearing on punitive damages can proceed. Therefore – by a four-to-three vote – we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals, and sent the case back to the trial court for a hearing on punitive damages and attorney fees.
Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.