Punitive Damages for Wrongful Death Bill Passes Illinois House

A bill that would allow for punitive damages in wrongful death cases passed the Illinois House of Representatives today on a vote of 75 to 30 with three members not voting. The bill is on a fast track to pass the Senate before the legislative session ends May 19 and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is supportive of the bill and will sign it.

Representative La Shawn Ford

That’s according to Representative La Shawn Ford (D), who introduced the bill in the Illinois House this year.

Under current law, those injured by corporate wrongdoing can recover punitive damages, but the survivors of those killed by corporate wrongdoing cannot.

“Right now, you have less liability if your actions lead to the death of someone instead of injuring them,” Ford said. “This is not fair for victims, and it’s not fair for their families. After listening to families impacted by airplane crashes, I introduced similar legislation twice before. I’m glad to see it finally moving forward, and am appreciative of the opportunity to work on this with state Rep. Jay Hoffman who has been a strong and needed voice on the subject. This measure is a step in the right direction, and will help to curtail wrongful behavior.”

Ford, who has been an advocate on the issue for years, supported House Bill 219, which would extend recoverable punitive damages in wrongful death actions – an ability not allowed under current law. 

Punitive damages must be pursued through court, and are designed to punish and deter future bad conduct from a defendant. There are no caps on the punitive damages amount in Illinois. Some entities, including actions against the state or a unit of local government, would be exempt from the change.

“This will apply to incidents that are clearly reprehensible, intentional and reckless,” Ford said. “This update to our laws is long overdue, and I encourage the state Senate to act on this right away.”

Ford introduced the bill after family members of those who died in the two Boeing Max crashes approached legislators in Springfield with a plea to change the law. 

The family members lawsuits were brought against Boeing in federal court in Chicago, because that was where Boeing was based – until the aerospace giant moved its headquarters to Crystal City, Virginia in 2022.

What made Ford introduce the legislation?

“The Boeing victims families actually came to Springfield, Illinois,” Ford told Corporate Crime Reporter. 

Ford said that one mother, Nadia Milleron, who lost her daughter in the Ethiopia crash, actually drove from New England to Illinois in February 2022 and worked Springfield “crying and begging us to do something about this law.” 

“And that’s how the idea of this bill came to us in Springfield. It was this woman coming to us and crying for us to do something about this law.”

“She and her crew are the ones that made this happen,” Ford said. “She brought to me family members from all ethnicities to show how many people were impacted by these crashes.”

Ford said that when the bill was first introduced in January 2022 – “there wasn’t a mood for it.”

Was there any discussion about making the bill retroactive so that the Boeing victims’ families could sue for punitive damages for the wrongful death of their loved ones?

“There was discussion, but this bill doesn’t do that,” Ford said.

If Boeing was still headquartered in Chicago, would this bill have passed?

“That’s a hypothetical and I’m not prepared to weigh in on that,” Ford said. “But when they were here, we didn’t pass it.”

In February 2022, Milleron wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune titled – Illinois law spares Boeing from paying for 737 Max 8 fatalities. Lawmakers, fix the ‘death gap.’

“There is a little-known flaw in the Illinois legal code that will allow Boeing to avoid paying money specifically because it killed – and didn’t injure – the victims,” Milleron wrote. “Even though a change in this law will not benefit my family or our fellow crash victim families, Illinois lawmakers must address this. Doing so would make sure that future Boeing aircraft passengers will be protected, as well as the victims of any other companies that may cause wrongful death.”

“Here’s the problem with Illinois’ current wrongful death statute,” she wrote. “If a person is injured by the actions of a reckless or criminal corporation, the law allows the victim to pursue punitive damages against the company. Insurance policies do not cover these damages, and the company itself must pay. But if the victim actually dies from the same reckless conduct, the law does not allow for punitive damages from the company. Instead, the insurance company pays — but not the blameworthy corporation.”

“Illinois courts identified this issue years ago but said that it’s up to the state’s General Assembly to fix it. However, legislators never did. And now Boeing will get to save millions of dollars.”

“This is all doubly upsetting since Boeing is still putting profit over safety – and paying millions in salary compensation to its executives. Since the 737 MAX 8 was ungrounded a year ago, there have been at least 42 subsequent reports of in-flight equipment malfunctions. At least 22 of these incidents involved the plane’s flight control system, the same issue responsible for the two Max 8 crashes.”

“I am asking that Illinois legislators now do what they should have done years ago: Close the death gap.”

“This would be a great moral victory and would both punish and deter future corporate wrongdoers from actions that might result in the death of innocent people,” Milleron wrote.

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