Punitive Damages Deter Personal Injuries and Wrongful Deaths
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Punitive Damages Deter Personal Injuries and Wrongful Deaths

Tuesday, February 17, 2009By Richard Alexander

America's highways are full of vehicles that kill innocent people, ruin lives, and fill courtrooms. Those vehicles are on the roads because auto company executives willfully and repeatedly put their own profits ahead of the safety and well-being of their customers.

Officers in many other businesses act equally irresponsibly, whether they're sending dangerous products to market or stealing money from investors.American businesses are assaulting American citizens, and one tool that our legal system can use to try to deter auto companies, businesses of all types, and individuals from acting maliciously is punitive damages. Punitive damages are punishments imposed on people who intentionally bring harm to others through actions that are illegal, immoral, and unethical.

The concept of punitive damages is the same for a corporation as it is for a child. The purpose is to prevent the child or the corporation for doing the same thing again. Children sometimes get the message when their parents  take away their cell phones or don't let the child go to a concert. Ford Motor Company has never gotten the message. If it had, Benetta Buell-Wilson might not be leading her life as a paraplegic.

When Mrs. Buell-Wilson swerved to avoid an object which had fallen off a truck in front of her on Interstate 8 near Alpine, California, her Ford Explorer fishtailed and then flipped, rolling four and a half times and coming to rest on its collapsed roof. The horrific crash left Mrs. Wilson near death. She survived, but she is a parapapegic. She has no sensation from the waist down, and extreme pain from the waist up. Her quality of life is terrible, and Ford is to blame.

At trial, a jury awarded Mrs. Wilson and her husband a total of $369 million. Of that total, $246 million was punitive damages, which means that it was a punishment to Ford for choosing to sell the Explorer when Ford officials knew that the design was defective and that accidents such as Mrs. Buell-Wilson's were certain to happen.

A judge subsequently reduced the settlement to $150 million, but neither $369 million or $150 million can restore Mrs. Wilson's quality of life, and she would gladly trade the money to be able to walk again.

The Explorer's design made it prone to rollovers, and the SUV has also harmed passengers because of defective tires and valve stems, as well as glass that wasn't strong enough to protect passengers.

At Ford, Mrs. Wilson was just the latest in a long list of customers injured and killed by the company's products. It's a trend that dates back to 1971, when Lee Iacocca, considered by many a great automotive mind, brought the explosively popular Pinto to market.

Auto company executives certainly deserve most of the blame for these unnecessary deaths and injuries, but they can share some of it with their friends and enablers in government agencies such as The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Auto companies can make all cars much safer, but they choose not to do so because the safety improvements might add a few dollars to the sticker price.

Since the Explorer's introduction, Ford has marketed the vehicle as one that can go anywhere and do things that normal cars and SUVs can't and shouldn't do. That marketing has certainly appealed to thrill seekers and it has given drivers a false sense of safety.

If executives at Ford and at many other businesses didn't act with wanton disregard for the health and safety of others, the concept of punitive damages would not have to exist. If all individuals and all individuals who represent businesses large and small would act ethically, then fewer people would suffer, and juries wouldn't have to decide whether businesses or individuals had acted maliciously.

Until that time, however, punitive damages are a necessary and effective tool in deterring the evil doers who will put their own fortunes before others' safety and health.

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