Many of my Maryland medical malpractice clients ask me whether there is any possibility that they can claim or recover punitive damages in their cases. The answer in every case is no. In Maryland, in order to recover puntive damages, the Maryland Court of Appeals (Maryland’s “Supreme Court”) decided in the 1992 case of Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, that a person must prove that the defendant acted with “actual malice.” Actual malice has been defined to mean intent to injury, ill will, or fraud. In a medical malpractice case, I have never seen a case where a physicain intended to injure a patient, or where there was ill will toward a patient that caused injury. Similarly, I have never seen a case of fraud in a medical malpractice case that injure a patient. While I suppose it could happen, it almost never does.
There are, however, times when punitive damages can be claimed in a medical malpractice case involving a defective product. In Zenobia, the Court of Appeals held that in order to prove a claim for punitive damages, a plaintiff must plead and then demonstrate: (1) that the defendant possessed actual knowledge of the product defect; and (2) that the defendant consciously and deliberately disregarded a foreseeable harm that might result from the defect. With respect to a product manufacturer, the Zenobia Court cited with approval academic commentary which stands for the proposition that manufacturer’s requisite level of knowledge “is usually gained through…testing procedures before the marketing or through post-marketing consumer accident reports and complains received by the defendant.” Additionally, actual knowledge also includes the willful refusal to know. Therefore, a defendant cannot shut his eyes or plug his ears when he is presented with evidence of a defect and thereby avoid liability for punitive damages. Id. Simply put, “the test requires a bad faith decision by the defendant to market or distribute the product, knowing of the defect and danger, in conscious disregard of the threat to the safety of those who will be exposed to the product.” While this is not an easy standard to meet, it can be met, and has been met in many cases, where evidence supports such a claim.