Punitive Damages in Civil Rights Suits

It is often misunderstood that all damages awarded in civil rights suits against cities and/or towns must be paid by the taxpayers if there is not enough insurance coverage available. While this could be true in certain circumstances (such as where there is simply too little insurance coverage), there is usually no taxpayer exposure to punitive damages.

Punitive damages are awarded to punish or even “make an example” of a public official whose conduct is beyond all bounds of decency or is criminal. This usually means that the official went out of their way to intend harm to another person or persons. And in the absence of an agreement by the Town or City to fully indemnify the official for everything (punitive damages included), it is the responsibility of the individual defendant to pay any portion of an award based on punitive damages.

So if an individual defendant tries to claim that the insurance company hasn’t enough coverage and that a suit against him or her will potentially cost the taxpayers a lot of money this may be nothing more than a scare tactic to seek public support in hopes that an election can be won despite the suit or that there will be pressure to end the lawsuit and that this will help the person against whom punitive damages are claimed from being exposed to pay this type of damages personally.

Hopefully, whenever this transparent red herring argument is made, the public will see right through it and the real reason that this “issue” is being raised. We invite your questions and comments.

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