Louisiana Wrongful Death and Punitive Damages Award (Part I)

The Bailey v. Exxon Mobil Corporation case finds its conclusion based on the precedent set forth in Bulot v. Intracoastal Tubular Services. The focus is on the application of a statute, and differentiating events that take place prior to the statute’s enactment, and how the Court will analyze events that continuously occur which began before the enactment of the statute and continue after its enactment.

The issue before the Court in Bailey is whether the plaintiffs’ claims for punitive damages in a wrongful death action are precluded by Bulot. The plaintiffs in Bailey alleged that either they or their decedents were exposed to naturally occurring radioactive material at over 600 pipe yards throughout Louisiana, six other states, and overseas, through their work with, or with a subsidiary of, the Exxon Mobile Corporation. They also alleged they were entitled to punitive damages under former Louisiana Civil Code Article 2315.3.

Punitive damages are intended to reform or deter the defendant and others from engaging in similar conduct to that which formed the basis of the lawsuit. Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the plaintiff, however, the plaintiff often receives most if not all of the punitive damages award. The Court states that the statute in question, La. C.C. art. 2315.3, effective September 3, 1984 and repealed April 16, 1996, provided for punitive damages “if it [were] proved that plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the defendant’s wanton or reckless disregard for public safety in the storage, handling, or transportation of hazardous or toxic substances.” The court in Bulot states that “punitive damages cannot be recovered by way of a wrongful death action. The right to a punitive award is a different kind of right or legally enforceable claim than the right to compensatory damages. As such, a claim for damages pursuant to La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2315.3 cannot exist as a component of a wrongful death action, as that is limited to compensatory damages for the survivor’s (victim’s) own injuries.”

In Bailey, the defendants filed numerous exceptions, including peremptory exceptions of no cause of action for punitive damages for plaintiffs’ wrongful death claims based on the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit’s holding in Bulot v. Intracoastal Tubular Services, Inc. The District Court sustained the defendants’ exceptions of no cause of action for punitive damages in a wrongful death case.

In Bulot, the widow and children of a deceased employee brought survival and wrongful death actions against his employer. They alleged that the deceased’s cancer was the result of occupational exposure to radioactive waste while cleaning oilfield pipes. The District Court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the punitive damages claims. His widow and children then appealed to the Court of Appeal where it was held that there were genuine issues of material fact which precluded summary judgment on the punitive damages claim in the survival action. The Court of Appeal also held that punitive damages could not be recovered through a wrongful death action. Thus, according to Bulot, the plaintiffs in Bailey are precluded from recovering punitive damages in a wrongful death action.

For a further discussion of Bulot v. Intracoastal Tubular Services, Inc. please continue reading Part II of this post. If, however, you feel as though you have read all you need and have questions or need expert advice in a potential wrongful death claim of your own, then please do not hesitate to contact the Berniard Law Firm.