Punitive Damages: A conflict in legal traditions
NEW ORLEANS, LA — When the person who injured you was engaged in actions that society finds particularly egregious, a court may order that the liable party must pay you punitive damages in addition to traditional damages such as compensation for medical bills or pain and suffering. Punitive damages have a well-established history in British common law, and therefore are common in many American states.
However, Louisiana law is largely built on French jurisprudence, with origins in Roman law, and does not generally recognize punishment or revenge as appropriate in civil cases. At the same time, due to the growing Anglo-American influence with its heritage of British common law, punitive damages began to be discussed in 19th Century Louisiana. Lively debate ensued both in court and out, with Justice C.J. Slidell referring to the esteemed French jurisconsult Charles Toullier’s writing, “Si la faute qui pauvait causer du dommage n’en a point causé, la loi n’inflige aucune peine, à moins qu’une défense de commettre l’action n’eût été portée sous une peine déterminée; car alors a peine dérive d’une desobéissance, d’une contravention à la loi.” Considering Louisiana’s Civil Code in an 1855 case, Slidell opined that the discretion allowed to a court or jury to rule on certain elements of damages “by no means involves the idea that in the assessment of damages, the court or jury can travel beyond the enquiry how far the sufferer himself is affected, or exaggerate the amount for the purpose of vindicating offended public justice, or punishing the offender as an example to others.” Black v. Carrollton R. Co., 10 La. Ann. 33, 45 (1855).
Today, as a result of this tension between the Anglo and Franco-Roman traditions, Louisiana law does allow punitive damages, but only in circumstances specifically described by statute. Of these, there are very few, but the circumstance most relevant to the average plaintiff is the statute allowing for punitive damages to be assessed in a civil proceeding against a motorist who was operating his vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs when an accident occurred. Article 2315.4 of the Louisiana Civil Code states“In addition to general and special damages, exemplary damages may be awarded upon proof that the injuries on which the action is based were caused by a wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others by a defendant whose intoxication while operating a motor vehicle was a cause in fact of the resulting injuries.”
To complicate matters, even if a Louisiana court has the ability to award punitive damages after your accident with an intoxicated driver, some insurance companies exclude punitive damages from certain policies. It is critically important that you engage the services of an experienced attorney if you or a loved one has been injured by a person under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Further reading on punitive damages provides interesting information, spanning from the Code of Hammurabi to the Digest of 1808 and onward. To discuss punitive damages or any other aspect of your accident or case, call The de Boisblanc Law Firm today.
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