Article for Illinois COPS

Verdict is in, what happens next.

In previous articles we have explored the hazard faced by many law enforcement personnel, the civil lawsuit. From the time the citizen shouts,” You’ll hear from my attorney” or “I’m going to sue you” the police officer is under the cloud of being a defendant in a civil lawsuit. We learned the importance of keeping good notes on the occurrence and frequent in depth discussions with your defense attorney.  We also learned that appropriate good faith participation in the legal process should obtain a proper result.

If the Motion(s) to Dismiss or the negotiations and settlement conferences prove unsuccessful, the case will end up being tried. One of two results will occur: either the plaintiff will win and damages will be awarded, or the plaintiff will lose.

Everyone on our team will have worked hard to make sure that the plaintiff does not prevail but sometimes they do. Even if the plaintiff does prevail, we will have worked to make sure that the damages awarded are small.

There may be two types of damages awarded, compensatory or punitive. As explained earlier, compensatory damages are damages that are suffered by the plaintiff as a result of injury to her person, whether physical or emotional. The purpose of an award is to make the plaintiff whole, or as close to whole as possible. These damages will be paid by your employer’s insurance carrier. Sometimes the employer has no insurance or the policy limit has been exceeded.  In this case, the compensatory damages will be paid by the employer. 

Punitive damages, however, can be awarded for intentional acts. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish defendants and to deter them and others from doing the same or similar acts in the future.

Because the trier of fact, judge or jury, has deemed the act intentional, no insurance policy will pay punitive damages. It is also true that your employer will not pay them. That
just leaves you, the law enforcement professional, to pay them.

After the verdict is rendered the judge will either enter judgment immediately or set a time sometime in the near future, generally one to five days, to enter judgment on the verdict. Once the judgment is entered your attorney has a limited amount of time to file an appeal. Be proactive and make sure that your appeal is filed on time. Set a time to visit with your attorney. Be aware of and help with issues, as best you can, that will be brought up on appeal. This stage of the civil lawsuit process can take six months to several years to complete, depending on the issues that are brought up on appeal. There is not much anyone can do to speed the process. The wheels of justice grind slowly.

If, at the end of the appeal, the plaintiff prevails, the process of paying the award begins. For the compensatory award, the insurance carrier will pay the award and in exchange will receive a Satisfaction of Judgment and a Release of All Claims. As was stated in previous articles, make sure you read and understand these documents BEFORE they are signed. Make sure they release everyone involved and for the acts alleged. You should read the documents AFTER they are signed to be sure there were no changes.

As for the punitive damages, the plaintiff will ask the court to issue a Citation to Discover Assets. This is similar to applying for a home mortgage. The form that you will have to fill out in both cases will ask you for every asset in which you have an interest. This includes all real estate, bank accounts, titles in boats, cars, recreational vehicles, CD’s, stocks, bonds. It can not be stressed enough that ANY asset that you own, or even have a partial ownership in, can and may be used to satisfy a punitive damage judgment. Real estate owned in joint tenancy, like your home with your wife, or a fishing cabin with your parents or siblings, all can be reached. How about joint checking accounts? You bet. How about jointly held CD’s? Reachable. This is why you need to prepare an estate plan with your financial planner. Also, make sure that you have appropriate insurance for any compensatory claim, which can be insured, and your innocent spouse or joint asset holder knows about Partner Protection Insurance. For more information on this, visit the web site at

If you have taken the steps to plan how your assets are held, you are in better shape than most. But, like brushing your teeth for one week before seeing the dentist, efforts to protect assets after the lawsuit is filed and tried will have little or no effect on the outcome. It is important to listen to the advice that fills this magazine. Visit a professional estate planner to help lessen the impact of a punitive damage award.

Regardless of the state of your estate, the punitive damage award will still have an impact. Until the plaintiff files a Satisfaction of Judgment, your credit rating will be affected. You will not even be aware of some of the negative aspects of the judgment. The RATE of interest is often affected by the amount of debt to income ratio. The more debt, the more risk, the greater the rate of interest. For some cards, the rate can reach as high as 34%. Also, if all of your assets can not be reached because of your estate planning, the plaintiff may resort to placing a lien on your income. The plaintiff can ask the judge to place a lien on your paycheck until the punitive damage award is satisfied. This is not a good result for your cash flow.

So getting the punitive damage award off your plate will, or should, be a high priority for the law enforcement official. Once accomplished your credit rating should return to pre-judgment level.

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