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Wrongful Death Claims in Chicago: Your Guide to Punitive Damages

The loss of a close loved one to an accident that never should have happened is heartbreaking. It can change your entire life. A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil cause of action that can provide a path to justice for grieving families. Through a wrongful death claim, families can seek financial support. Notably, a reform bill was recently passed in Illinois to allow for punitive damages to be awarded in wrongful death lawsuits. Within this article, our Chicago wrongful death attorney provides a comprehensive guide to punitive damages in Illinois. 

What are Punitive Damages? 

Broadly speaking, punitive damages are a type of legal compensation awarded in civil cases that go beyond the actual losses suffered by the plaintiff. These types of damages are intended to punish the defendant for particularly egregious or reckless behavior. Punitive damages are also designed to deter similar conduct in the future. 

New Illinois Law: Punitive Damages Can Be Awarded in Wrongful Death Claim

For more than 100 years, punitive damages have not been recoverable in wrongful death lawsuits in Illinois. This despite the fact that the majority of other U.S. jurisdictions do permit courts to award punitive damages in wrongful death cases. Illinois law has changed. Last year, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed Illinois House Bill 219 (HB 219) into law. Notably, the legislation amends Illinois state law to make punitive damages available in most types of wrongful death claims. HB 219 amends a more than one-century old state precedent that disallowed those damages. Illinois HB 219 enables state law to seek wrongful death claimants to seek punitive damages if the death resulted from willful and wanton conduct on the part of the defendant. 

Know the Two Big Exceptions for Punitive Damages in Illinois Wrongful Death Cases

While HB 219 amends Illinois law to grant courts the authority to award punitive damages to grieving families in wrongful death cases, there are two very important exceptions. State law still explicitly prohibits an award of punitive damages in the following two types of claims: 

  1. Medical Malpractice (Wrongful Death): If your loved one was killed due to medical malpractice in Illinois, you have the right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the negligent doctor, hospital, or other health care provider. However, you cannot recover punitive damages in this type of wrongful death claim. 
  2. Government Defendant (Wrongful Death): If your loved one was killed due to the negligence of a government entity—for example a public bus accident—you can pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against that responsible public agency. However, you cannot recover punitive damages in this type of wrongful death claim. 

Punitive Damages By No Means Guaranteed (Case-Specific)

While punitive damages can now be awarded by Illinois courts in (most) wrongful death claims, they are not guaranteed as a matter of law. Indeed, most wrongful death cases will still not result in an award of punitive damages. Punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant for particularly egregious behavior and deter future misconduct. Therefore, for a court to award such damages, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were not merely negligent but recklessly indifferent to the rights of others or intentionally malicious. 

The burden of proof in these cases is significantly higher than for compensatory damages, which cover actual losses. For example, imagine that your loved one was killed in a catastrophic car crash in Cook County. An investigation reveals that the at-fault driver was heavily intoxicated. The motorist also has a prior DUI conviction on his or her record. Given the willful and wanton conduct, punitive damages might be awarded in addition to compensatory damages. An Illinois court would consider the reckless, dangerous conduct and its blatant disregard for the safety of others. 

Economic and Non-Economic Losses Used to Value Punitive Damages 

You may be wondering: If punitive damages are awarded, how much additional compensation will be granted? The short answer is that punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit in Chicago are always determined on a case-by-case basis. Remember, the value of such damages is not directly determined by the plaintiff’s economic and non-economic losses. With that being said, these losses do provide a context for the severity and impact of the defendant’s actions. 

Given that background, it is crucial that your economic and non-economic damages are well-documented. They are always the basis of a claim. Economic losses might include medical expenses, lost wages, and other quantifiable damages, while non-economic losses encompass pain and suffering, loss of companionship, and emotional distress. When appropriate, punitive damages may be awarded as a multiple of actual compensatory damages. 

Why Trust Our Chicago Wrongful Death Lawyers 

Putting the pieces back together after losing a loved one in an accident is never easy. It is normal to be struggling with the grieving process. You do not have to battle defendants and insurance companies in the legal process alone. At Kennedy Watkins LLC, our team of Chicago attorneys are skilled and knowledgeable advocates for grieving families. While a civil wrongful death claim is never going to be enough to truly make things right, it is an important step in the path to getting justice and financial support for your grieving family. With a proven record of verdicts and settlements in complex cases, we put clients first. Our Chicago wrongful death lawyers are committed to helping victims maximize their recovery, including for any punitive damages. 

Contact Our Chicago Wrongful Death Attorney for a Confidential Consultation

At Kennedy Watkins LLC, our Chicago wrongful death lawyers are compassionate, experienced, and justice-focused advocates for grieving families. If you have any specific questions or concerns about punitive damages in a wrongful death case, we are here as a legal resource. Call us now or get in touch with us online for a no cost, no obligation, and completely confidential initial case review. From our Chicago office, we fight for the rights of families in Cook County and communities beyond. 

Attorney Watkins
Attorney Watkins Attorney Kennedy



Attorney Kennedy