Intentional Injuries and Defamation, Libel and Slander
Injuries that result from intentional action are resolved quite differently from injuries caused by negligent conduct. Assaults, threats or uses of force that cause fear of harm, and batteries, using force to cause harm, are the most common kinds of intentional injuries. Auto accidents also obviously sometimes result from purposeful conduct. The most important differences between negligence actions and lawsuits arising out of intentional injuries involve the assessment of punitive damages and the collectability of the judgment.
Intentional injuries can inflame a jury’s passion such that it is moved to award punitive damages against the defendant. Punitive damages are assessed as a means of punishing the defendant for outrageous conduct. Punitive damages can be huge. Juries sometimes shock everyone involved with the litigation by awarding punitive damages that are way out of proportion to the actual damages suffered. You will read about such verdicts, since newspapers love to report large awards. But under the law, punitive damages must bear a reasonable relationship to the actual damages. What you will not read about is when the court reduces the award because the punitive damages were excessive.
Jury verdicts for intentional injuries are often uncollectible. Most insurance policies provide exclusions of coverage for intentional injuries. The courts uphold these exclusions since it is considered bad for society for individuals to be able to insure themselves against their intentional acts that injure others. The reasoning is that if you can insure yourself against assaulting others, the threat of a financially ruinous lawsuit will be reduced and you might be tempted to carry out your secret desire to assault the object of your disaffection. That is rightfully considered contrary to public policy and against the common good. Thus, the insurance company will not have to pay the judgment returned against its insured. That is why lawyers usually do not try to prove that the injury was caused intentionally, unless the individual defendant is wealthy.
If there is no insurance coverage, you must try to collect from the individual. This can be difficult, if not impossible, as well as time consuming and expensive. Even if you have the stomach to try to enforce a judgment by compelling the sale of the defendant’s assets, you may be surprised to learn that the defendant has divested him- or herself of all such assets or never had any in the first place. Or you may find that the defendant has filed for personal bankruptcy to avoid your collection efforts. This is another example of winning the battle, but losing the war. You never declare victory in a personal injury case until the check clears the bank.
Libel, Slander, and Defamation
Libel, a false and damaging statement made in writing or broadcast, and slander, a false and damaging statement made orally, are also considered intentional injury cases. Both involve defamation, which is making a false statement to at least one other person, that damages the reputation of the person spoken about.
Although you often read about multi-million-dollar jury verdicts in these cases, large verdicts almost never stand up on appeal. The First Amendment makes it practically impossible for anyone but private individuals to collect for libel or slander. Thus, journalists, for example, are free to say practically anything they want about public figures (politicians, entertainers, athletes) without worrying about legal liability.
Slander suits between private individuals are not often profitable. Damages are difficult to prove since insults rarely result in actual financial losses. Further, collecting on a judgment against a private individual is difficult and unpleasant. Practically speaking, the only defamation case that is worth pursuing would be if a journalist prints a falsehood about a private individual and that defamation causes provable financial harm. For example, if a newspaper falsely printed that an accountant was arrested for drug trafficking, that would be a case worth investigating.