Victims of sex abuse or sex assault in Pennsylvania may be entitled to financial compensation. That’s because Pennsylvania tort laws recognize the legal right to compensation in cases where an individual intentionally or negligently causes harm to another.
The harm caused by sexual abuse and sexual assault is very grave. There may be physical injuries and there almost always is lasting emotional and mental trauma. In extreme cases such as prolonged sexual abuse of a child, the victim may never be able to lead a normal life. Drug and alcohol addiction are very common among victims of sexual abuse or assault.
What are punitive damages in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania courts will allow a plaintiff (injured party) to make a claim for punitive damages so long as the evidence shows that the defendant acted outrageously. Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages are warranted where the acts of the defendant are malicious, wanton, willful, or oppressive, or shows reckless indifference to the interests of others.
This type of claim for damages is designed to punish the defendant for such conduct and to deter the defendant and others in the community from engaging in similar behavior in the future.
How are punitive damages awards decided?
Punitive damages awards are decided by the fact finder, i.e., the judge in a bench trial or the jury in a jury trial. Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages awards are based on the following:
1. the nature and extent of the defendant’s act,
2. the extent of the harm to the victim that the defendant caused or intended to cause, and
3. the defendant’s wealth and ability to pay (only for the purpose of determining an amount that adequately punishes the defendant).
In cases where there is more than one defendant, the fact finder will decide 1. whether to assess punitive damages against each defendant, based on each defendant’s conduct alone, and 2. the amount of any punitive damages assessed against each defendant.
Are punitive damages claims appropriate in civil sex abuse-assault lawsuits?
Claims for punitive damages are very common in civil sex abuse-assault lawsuits in Pennsylvania, especially given the nature of the acts themselves.
In sex abuse or assault lawsuits, the actions of the direct perpetrator (the individual who committed the acts) will almost always warrant punitive damages. In addition, punitive damages may be warranted where indirect perpetrators created or increased the risk of abuse or assault. For instance, an individual or entity such as a church, school, etc., which turned a blind eye or otherwise tried to suppress the reports of sexual abuse/assault, may be ordered to pay punitive damages to the victim.
However, it is important to note that in many cases, punitive damages awards may be nominal only. For instance, a priest who is ordered to pay punitive damages may never be able to actually come up with the money to pay the judgment.
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