No Punitive Damages After Wrongdoer’s Death, Iowa Supreme Court Affirms

August 24, 2011

Punitive damages may not be recovered from the estate of a “wrongdoer,” the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled.

The Court’s decision in a case involving a damage dispute between rural land owners upholds a lower court decision and reaffirms previous legal findings that punitive damages do not survive the death of a wrongdoer.

The ruling comes in The Estate of Johnny Vajgrt v. Bill Ernst Inc. (No. 10–1088)

Ernst and Vajgrt owned adjacent properties near the town of Marshalltown, Iowa. The Ernst property, a 33-acre largely wooded tract that floods annually as the result of the overflowing of Burnett Creek, which runs through the property. The tract is used for recreational purposes.

Vajgrt’s property edged Ernst’s acreage to the north.

“In the fall of 2005, Vajgrt became concerned that a fallen tree near the confluence of Burnett Creek and the Iowa River would create a dam and cause water to back up onto his land,” the Court explained. “Therefore, Vajgrt sought permission to enter onto Ernst’s land to remove the tree.”

Ernst initially refused Vajgrt permission to access his property. Vajgrt appealed to the City of Marshalltown, which determined that he could access its land bordering both Vajgrt’s and Ernst’s properties, to remove the tree.

However, “Vajgrt explained to Ernst that it would be more convenient to go through Ernst’s property,” the Court explained. Ernst relented and gave Vajgrt permission to access his property in order to remove the fallen tree.

Ernst then went on a hunting trip to Colorado. Upon returning he found that Vajgrt and another person had entered his property and removed not only the fallen tree but approximately 40 live trees as well.

He did not pursue a legal claim at that time, but in April 2009 Ernst filed a claim “seeking compensatory damages for the diminution to the value of his property, the value of the trees, and the expense of restoration, as well as punitive damages.”

Vajgrt had died in November 2008, so Ernst’s claim was against Vajgrt’s estate. A district court awarded Ernst a total amount of $2,300, or $57.50 for each tree removed, but declined to award punitive damages, stating that Iowa law had long held that that punitive damages could not be awarded against the estate of a tortfeasor.

On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the lower court, stating that the “long-standing rule in this state bars the recovery of punitive damages when the tortfeasor dies before judgment.”

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