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Kentucky Legislature Cannot Limit Common Law Right to Punitive Damages
Description Kentucky supreme court held invalid a state statute imposing a more restricted basis for the imposition of punitive damages. The statute violates the intent of the state constitution to protect the common-law of action to recover punitive damages.
Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words Punitive Damages
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts The Kentucky legislature enacted a statute to modify Kentucky law with respect to punitive damages. "Departing from the traditional common law standard which permitted a jury to impose punitive damages upon a finding of gross negligence as measured by an objective standard, the new statutory standard ... requires a determination that the defendant acted with 'flagrant indifference to the rights of the plaintiff and with a subjective awareness that such conduct will result in human death or bodily harm.' It also requires proof by clear and convincing evidence." The constitutionality of the statute was challenged.
Decision The statute violates the jural rights doctrine of the state constitution, which restricted the authority of the legislature to limit common law rights of recovery, and so is invalid. As the court recognized in a case in 1932, the constitutional convention "intended to extend the common-law right of action to recover both compensatory and exemplary damages." Since this common-law right was protected by the constitution, the legislature could not restrict it.
Citation Williams v. Wilson, 972 S.W.2d 260 (Sup. Ct., Ky., 1998)

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