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October 24, 2002 - Court Disallows Punitive Damages

South Dakota law does not allow punitive damages to be sought from the estate of an alleged wrongdoer, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday. Punitive damages, which are intended to punish wrongdoers and deter future similar conduct, sometimes are sought in addition to actual damages in lawsuits. Punitive damages are intended to deter and punish the wrongdoers, not their heirs, the high court said.

A lawsuit filed by a group of women alleges that they were hurt by exposure to lead and cadmium in paint when they worked at Van Dyke Supply Co. The women worked in rooms where glass eyes were painted for sale to taxidermists.Witnesses have alleged that Bert Van Dyke, the plant's owner, made sure labels were removed from paint containers so that workers would not know the paint contained cadmium and lead. A supervisor at the plant said he talked to Van Dyke in 1987 about the possibility that the women were being exposed to lead and cadmium poisoning. He later said that Van Dyke told him, "What those ladies don't know won't hurt them."

After a 1994 test showed one worker's blood contained nearly seven times the level of lead the federal government considers toxic, the other workers also were tested. At least 20 had elevated levels of lead in their blood.Lead poisoning can harm a person's nervous system, heart, blood, kidneys and digestive system, the lawsuit said. Cadmium can cause cancer.

Lawyers for Kilcoin have said no inspections before 1994 indicated any potential lead hazard in the eye-painting rooms, and the company provided gloves, masks and smocks to workers. The company's workers' compensation insurance paid for lead testing and the workers' related medical expenses.

Circuit Judge Tim Dallas Tucker ruled that the workers could not seek punitive damages from Van Dyke's estate. The trial in the case was postponed pending the Supreme Court's ruling on the issue. The Supreme Court said South Dakota provides that punitive damages can be awarded only to punish a wrongdoer and deter future misdeeds. Assessing punitive damages on an estate does not punish or deter the wrongdoer, the justices said. "Concededly, the acts alleged against the decedent in this case describe reprehensible conduct. But we cannot ignore the clear language in our punitive damage statute declaring the purpose for punitive damages: to deter and punish wrongdoers, not their heirs," the court wrote.

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