Punitive Damages Are Unavailable Under WLAD
Are punitive damages unavailable under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD)? Here's my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding).
DEFINITION OF PUNITIVE DAMAGES
Generally, damages are considered to be "money claimed by, or ordered to be paid to, a person as compensation for loss or injury...." Black's Law Dictionary 416 (8th ed. 2004). However, punitive damages are not a form of compensation for loss/injury; they are "assessed by way of penalizing the wrongdoer or making an example to others." Id. at 418.
WASHINGTON STATE SUPREME COURT -- PUNITIVE DAMAGES UNAVAILABLE UNDER THE WLAD (LAD)
The Washington State Supreme Court has held that "punitive damages are unavailable under the [Washington] Law Against Discrimination …, RCW 49.60." Dailey v. North Coast Life Insurance Company, 129 Wn.2d 572, 574 (Wash. 1996) (hyperlink added). The two primary reasons for this holding are that such damages are contrary to public policy and that the legislature has not explicitly authorized them.
PUNITIVE DAMAGES ARE CONTRARY TO PUBLIC POLICY
Beginning with "its earliest decisions, [the Washington State Supreme Court] … has consistently disapproved punitive damages as contrary to public policy." Id. (referencing Spokane Truck & Dray Co. v. Hoefer, 2 Wash. 45, 50-56, 25 P. 1072 (1891)). "Punitive damages not only impose on the defendant a penalty generally reserved for criminal sanctions, but also award the plaintiff with a windfall beyond full compensation." Id. (referencing Kadoranian v. Bellingham Police Dep't, 119 Wash.2d 178, 188, 829 P.2d 1061 (1992)). Specifically, "in the case of workplace discrimination, the Legislature has assured a plaintiff may 'become whole' through a full panoply of compensatory damages." Id. (referencing Barr v. Interbay Citizens Bank, 96 Wash.2d 692, 699-700, 635 P.2d 441, amended by 96 Wash.2d 692, 649 P.2d 827 (1982)).
NO EXPLICIT LEGISLATIVE AUTHORIZATION FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES
Moreover, "[w]here the Legislature has intended the exceptional relief of punitive damages, the statute has contained an explicit authorization." Id. at 577 (referencing RCW 9.73.230(11); RCW 19.86.090). Accordingly, "[i]f the Legislature intended to make punitive damages available for employment discrimination under the … [Law Against Discrimination], it would have unambiguously so provided." Id.
Punitive damages are unavailable under the WLAD, because they are contrary to public policy and because the legislature has not explicitly authorized them.
Read about available damages under the Washington Law Against Discrimination by viewing our article: Remedies for Employment Discrimination in WA State.
If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Washington State Employment Discrimination Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group; please see our DISCLAIMER.