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§23.17A Punitive Damages Against Estate of Defendant

The Case:  Hayes v. Gill, 390 S.W.2d 213 (Tenn. 1965).

The Basic Facts:  Compensatory and punitive damages were awarded in a car accident case.  Both drivers died in the wreck and a claim was brought against the negligent driver’s estate.

The Bottom Line:

“The question suggested is whether or not punitive damages can be awarded against the estate of a deceased person. We think not.”  390 S.W.2d at 217

“In 15 Am. Jur., Damages § 285 (1938), it is stated that generally punitive damages cannot be awarded against the estate of a deceased person. The pertinent language reads as follows:


Since the purpose of awarding exemplary damages is to punish the wrongdoer, as a rule his death destroys the right to them and they cannot be recovered against his estate or his heirs or other representatives.”Id.


“There is an annotation in 65 A.L.R. 1049 on the same subject. The following recent cases all support the annotation and American Jurisprudence: Amos v. Prom, Inc., 115 F. Supp. 127 (U.S.D.C., Iowa, N.D. 1953); Barnes v. Smith, 305 F.2d 226 (10 CA, 1962); Evans v. Gibson, et al., 220 Cal. 476, 31 P.2d 389 (1934); Marcante, et al. v. Hein, 51 Wyo. 389, 67 P.2d 196 (1937); Morriss v. Barton, 200 Okl. 4, 190 P.2d 451 (1947, rehearing denied 1948, second rehearing denied 1948); Simone v. McKee, et al, 142 Cal. App.2d 307, 298 P.2d 667 (1956); Dalton v. Johnson, 204 Va. 102, 129 S.E.2d 647 (1963).”  Id.


“Further, in the recent case of Faulk v. Aware, Inc., 35 Misc.2d 302, 231 N.Y.S.2d 270 (1963), in a libel suit against three defendants, one of which was a corporation, and the other two being individuals (one of the two individuals died before the jury went out to consider its verdict), the court instructed the jury that punitive damages would not be recoverable from the estate of the deceased defendant. At page 279 of 231 N.Y.S.2d, the court said:


Now, keep in mind that punitive damages may not be assessed, because of his death, against Johnson’s estate….”Id.


“We think that the proposition that punitive damages are, for the most part, meted out as punishment is well established by the Tennessee cases. Stepp v. Black, 14 Tenn. App. 153 (1931); Railroad v. Guinan, 79 Tenn. 98 (1883); Southeastern Aviation v. Hurd, 209 Tenn. 639, 355 S.W.2d 436 (1962); 27 Tenn. L. Rev. 381 (1960).” Id.

“Since the deceased party can in no way be punished by the award of punitive damages, we see no reason for allowing such damages to be assessed. When the reason for a rule ceases to exist, the rule itself is no longer of value and is extinguished by the disappearance of the reason.” Id.

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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