Punitive damages are awarded in liability lawsuits when a defendant's behavior has been proven to be outrageously bad. The added compensation is a civil court's way of punishing the offending party and deterring others from acting the same way.
A West Virginia hospital spent $100 million to settle claims that one of its doctors harmed dozens of patients in 2002 and 2003. The osteopathic surgeon worked eight months at Putnam General Hospital, now renamed and under new ownership, where he allegedly performed surgeries the doctor was unqualified to do, with the wrong equipment, on patients who didn't need or agree to have the surgeries.
The physician, no longer permitted to practice medicine in West Virginia, was named as a defendant in 124 medical malpractice claims. A default judgment against the surgeon in 2012 led to a recent filing of orders from a Putnam County judge. The judge approved $43.9 million in damages, including punitive damages of nearly $32 million, covering 13 cases.
More than $3 million was ordered for total economic damages and nearly $9 million in compensatory damages. Reports said compensation varied widely among the plaintiffs. Orders showed one plaintiff was awarded more than $6 million in punitive damages.
The defendant left West Virginia and started practicing in another Southern state under a different name. Seven years ago, the osteopathic surgeon declared bankruptcy, temporarily suspending legal actions against him. The man eventually lost his license to practice medicine in 10 states, including the state where he relocated following employment at Putnam General Hospital.
Damage awards sometimes run into the tens of millions of dollars, an amount some people feel is excessive. However, victims of physician negligence may suffer injuries that permanently ruin their health or kill them. Compensation is awarded for medical mistakes that never would have taken place, if a health care professional had not been negligent or, in some cases, reckless.
Source: The West Virginia Record, "Judge signs orders making King liable for $44M" Chris Dickerson, Nov. 04, 2014