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Punitive Damages in Mississippi: The Irby Civil Trial

As I wrote in a previous post, the Karen Irby criminal conviction for killing two doctors while driving drunk may be over, but the civil litigation continues. The families of the doctors filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Karen and Stuart Irby (Karen has since been released from the lawsuit) asking for $20 million in compensatory damages and $40 million in punitive damages.

Compensatory damages, which include pain and suffering, loss of wages, and medical expenses, are the damages usually recovered in a personal injury lawsuit.  Punitive damages, which is money awarded to punish the defendant and is not based on actual financial loss, can be awarded only in certain situations.  You may recover punitive damages when the defendant has acted with malice or gross negligence, which means that they have acted with reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of others.  Drunk driving is an example of gross negligence and actionable for punitive damages.

Karen Irby was indicted for depraved heart murder because she was allegedly intoxicated at the time of the accident and driving at excessive speed – so her crime is the type of conduct we as a civil society want to prohibit. One way to deter others from doing something similar is to make such reckless conduct subject to punitive damages.   40 million dollars is a lot of money – so how was this sum reached and could the families actually get that amount?

In Mississippi, punitive damages awards are capped at specific amounts based on the defendant’s net worth. $20 million is actually the maximum that can be recovered, and only if the defendant’s net worth is more than one billion dollars. However, there is a limitation to the cap on punitive damages – if the person was convicted of a felony or committed the crime under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the cap does not apply. Karen Irby’s conviction applies to both situations, so the plaintiffs can ask for any sum they want.

When deciding the amount of punitive damages to award, the court will consider the defendant’s net worth and also the crime itself – what the defendant did, the harm it caused, whether the defendant tried to conceal the misconduct, how long the misconduct when on, and the defendant’s awareness of the harm they are causing. Punitive damages will not even be considered until the plaintiff has won an award for compensatory damages, so we will just have to wait and see what happens at the civil trial against Stuart Irby.

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