No Punitive Damages After Death

by Ryan Koopmans | August 5, 2011

By Ryan Koopmans

The Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed today the rule that punitive damages do not follow you to the grave.  Writing for a majority of the Court in The Estate of Johnny Vajgrt v. Bill Ernst, Inc., Justice Mansfield explained that because “the role of punitive damages is punitive, rather than compensatory, such damages should not be awarded when the person to be punished has died.”  While it is true that Iowa law provides that all “causes of action” survive death, the Court ruled that punitive damages “do not constitute a ‘cause of action.’”

Justice Wiggins issued a short concurring opinion (joined by Justice Appel).  He did not find the basis behind the no-punitive-damages-after-death rule to be particularly persuasive, but nevertheless agreed to reaffirm the rule because the legislature had seemingly approved it by passing punitive damages legislation without overruling the Court’s precedents on the issue.

Justice Hecht dissented.  In his view, allowing punitive damage claims to go forward after death serves two purposes: (1) retribution, and (2) deterrence.  Tortfeasors will be deterred, according to Justice Hecht, by the prospect that their innocent beneficiaries will be harmed by any future punitive damages award against the estate.

The opinions are here.   And the Des Moines Register’s coverage of the decision is here.




February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.


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