Punitive Damage Awards and Settlement Contributions

Punitive damages. A simple legal phrase, but one that can strike fear into officers everywhere. Any officer involved in a lawsuit that reads or hears those two simple words, should immediately realize that the stakes are high and their personal vulnerability is even higher. We believe that no officer should have to experience being the target of litigation without knowing the individual risk they potentially face. In an effort to create a greater awareness amongst officers, this article will briefly explore punitive damages and discuss a growing trend that is aimed at making officers pay from their own pockets, even when settlements are reached. A future article will subsequently discuss available steps officers can take to limit their exposure and protect their assets.

What Are Punitive Damages?

The public policy goal behind most civil lawsuits is to rectify a wrong and ensure that the plaintiff is made whole again through compensation, i.e. damages. However, punitive damages are drastically different from compensatory damages. At its base, punitive means “punish” and it follows that punitive damages exist solely to punish. Punitive damages were created to serve as a public policy deterrent to wrongful behavior. In practice, punitive damages are awarded by the judge or jury in a civil lawsuit and are awarded in addition to any compensation damages. Punitive damages are generally not applied against the municipality but rather are applied against the individual officers involved. Because most departments indemnify their police officers against claims, many officers mistakenly believe that they will not be required to pay any damages if a judgment is entered against them.

Police watchdog groups have sprung up overnight, entire websites are devoted to reporting officer misconduct, and there are organizations and institutes specifically devoted to tracking and curbing police misconduct. Advocating for punitive damage awards is increasing in favor, and critics contend that if police do not personally pay for their misconduct they will not be deterred from future misconduct. While courts possess the power to reduce or dismiss excessive punitive damage awards, officers should not presume that this will occur. Officers have often been stunned to discover that even though they were legally represented by their municipality and assured of a good outcome, they were subsequently required to pay punitive damages out of their own pocketbook. Officers must be aware that municipalities rarely, if ever, offer to pay punitive damage awards incurred by their officers. Don’t believe that because your municipality is providing representation in your civil suit that they will cover any punitive damages awarded. If punitive damages are entered against you, the overwhelming odds are that you alone will be responsible for payment.

Making Officers Pay Through Settlement Contributions

Sadly, a fraction of officers don’t acknowledge that civil litigation has direct consequences not only for themselves but to law enforcement at large. Perhaps because of sheer indifference or as critics suggest, because they were indemnified and suffered no financial hardship, some officers routinely accept and justify civil lawsuits as part of the job. This attitude is harmful law enforcement and unfortunately adds support to a movement that seeks to increasingly make officers pay out of pocket. How often have you heard an officer say something along the lines of, “you aren’t the real police until you’ve been sued”, “I have nothing to worry about, this case is going nowhere” or “it’s all ‘b.s’ and it will be settled.”

Municipalities routinely settle lawsuits involving police misconduct, but this often happens only after intense media scrutiny. As a result, negative public perception towards law enforcement increases. Scholarly articles have called for modifying indemnification policies specifically so officers will be held personally liable for paying portions of settlement awards. Fiscal watchdog groups have joined the chorus by calling for municipalities to end routine settlement awards. They argue that much needed public tax dollars pay for police misconduct settlements, but the officers involved rarely if ever contribute. Although rare to date, lawyers and their clients have required that officers pay a portion of any settlement. The city of Chicago has recently asked officers involved in a number of settlements to personally pay a portion of the settlement to the city as an officer’s contribution towards offsetting the city’s expenditure on their behalf.

Don’t Be Caught Unaware

Don’t blindly remain in the crosshairs after you have been targeted in civil litigation. Educate yourself as to your particular circumstances. Examine and determine your municipality’s past and current policy regarding punitive damage awards and settlements. Specifically ask your representing attorney about punitive damage awards and settlements and who will be liable for payment. Do not assume or except vague assurances that punitive damages are rarely awarded or that you have nothing to worry about because your legal bill is being paid by your municipality. Those outdated and harmful beliefs run counter to the growing trend that targets officer’s personal pocketbooks. All officers should consider civil litigation a serious matter and should constantly seek to limit their personal exposure to liability.

The Law Offices of Daniel Q. Herbert and Associates believes that a detailed knowledge of the law is the sign of dedicated law enforcement professionals. Knowing the law helps protect the public you serve and is an excellent method to prevent being involved in litigation. It protects you and your family. Law enforcement officers needing legal assistance or advice related to their employment can contact us at www.danherbertlaw.com or via phone at (312) 655-7660.