I write this in partial follow-up to this morning’s post about attempts to reverse California’s damage caps in medical malpractice cases. This morning, I commented that damage caps on pain and suffering and punitive damage awards were harmful to the public because the threat of a high damage award acts as a deterrent to the wrongful conduct that results in the award. For public safety reasons, there should be no restrictions on a jury’s right to award the damages it sees fit to award.
This afternoon, as I was winding down from a busy day and checking past emails following a short vacation, I came across an article in the St. Petersberg Times that vividly demonstrates the need for punitive damages. A Pinellas County jury awarded an infant $3,000,000 as the result of an incident involving a 10 month old boy who was squirming on a diapering table and a frustrated caregiver who, in an effort to get him to stay put, bent his leg back until it broke.
If that was the end of the story, one incident involving one frustrated caregiver, one baby, and one broken leg, the case would probably have resolved without a trial and for far less compensation. In this case, however, licensing officials and the jury were presented evidence of a pattern of misbehavior engaged in by this particular caregiver over a long period of time. Indeed, several parents and co-worker complained, over and over, that she was ‘mishandling children’, according to the article. These incidents ranged from dropping a clipboard on a toddler’s fingers, to picking a child up by the wrist and carrying her across the room for disobedience. As the result of the broken leg incident, the caregiver was finally terminated and, further, pleaded no contest to felony child abuse, and was sentenced to a year in jail. Further, the incidents involving this particular caregiver were happening as licensing authorities were reviewing other Pinellas County KinderCare centers for serious/repeat rules violations.
As a result, the jury’s $3 million award included $2 million in punitive damages.
"KinderCare dropped the ball from top to bottom. If somebody is mishandling babies, you are responsible,” juror Brian Fick said. "Stacey should have been discharged long before that.”
Juror Fick was quite outspoken in his criticism of the center. He faulted its director for not listenting to repeated suggestions that the caregiver was mishandling children. He also wondered why there were no cameras in place so that supervisors could monitor caregivers. Kinder care grossed $1.5 billion per year and had 1,700 schools in 38 states.
"Take a little of that and install cameras.”
As a result of this case and this verdict, KinderCare has cleaned up its violation history. At the time of the incident, 5 out of 6 county facilities were being investigated for rules violations. Today, out of 16 centers operated by KinderCare or its parent corporation, Knowledge Learning, only one is being monitored for a "serious violation or series of smaller violations". A spokesperson stated regret for the incident and commited to "providing a safe place for children to learn, play and grow".
Raise you hand if you think this case and this verdict had anything to do with KinderCare and Knowledge Learning cleaning up their act. When a jury has the power to render a 7 or 8 figure punitive damage award, this power has a substantial effect on a company’s willingness or incentive to provide appropriate safety measures. Take that power away from juries and we will all be less safe.
Lawsuit Financial will continue to speak out against all forms of tort reform, caps on damages, judicial legislation of certain types of claims, and anti-justice politics in America. For further information on these issues, contact InjuryBoard, your local association for justice (in my state, Michigan, it is the Michigan Association for Justice), or the national association, the American Association for Justice. Together, perhaps we can, once again, live in a country that supports liberty and justice for all.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.