Eli5 Do victims get rich from a multi dollar fine?


What’s the highest fine a person can charge? And do victims get rich from the money they received?

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Not always. Technically the huge fines companies pay in lawsuits are designed to punish the company, not make the victim rich. A lot of times what goes to the victim is what’s considered “fair” by the court. But let’s go through a lot of those things.

First off, for a person to get a very big payout they’re usually permanently injured in some way. They may have lost limbs, become paralyzed, developed a chronic condition, or died. Having multiple millions of dollars is nice, but I would not like to spend the rest of my days in a hospital even if I had wealth. When a court decides how to compensate a person for this, it’s often in terms of “lost work”, and based on some number of years of what that person would have made if they didn’t lose their job from the event. (But every court case is different, this is just an example of one way compensation is calculated.)

Next, there are usually medical bills and they may be ongoing. Often the court decides to give the person enough money to cover those expenses and maybe some number of years of the ongoing treatment. This may depend on if the person seems unemployable due to disability or if they are able to keep their job. (Again, this is just an example of something the judge/jury will consider and not a strict rule.)

Then there are the court costs. Fighting a large company often takes a long time and involves teams of lawyers that cost a lot of money. The judge may rule that the settlement include all of the victim’s court costs. This *helps*, but obviously the victim isn’t getting rich from this.

But very often when a person is injured and the settlement is something large like $125 million, the judge has determined that the company was so negligent they deserve to be *punished* instead of just paying the victim’s fair share. However, our legal system recognizes if people can become fantastically wealthy from accidents there are people who will get into accidents on purpose. That’s why you’ll hear about “punitive fines”. That is money that the judge makes the accused pay but *doesn’t go to the victim*. It usually goes to a charity or something similar that the judge chooses.

That doesn’t mean some people don’t come out of a major trail more wealthy than before. If they weren’t permanently disabled but simply lost the ability to work temporarily, they may get a payment slightly larger than their salary would’ve been at the time. But more often than not the person has a permanent disability and enough money to pay for their lawyers, current medical bills, and maybe a few more years of the medical bills. Often it takes a long time to get there. (I know a person who suffered brain damage in an accident with a trucking company that had been negligent about maintenance. She’s been unable to work for 15 years and requires continuous medical care and STILL has not finished the trial.)

The news reports aren’t very clear about this because major companies like the public to believe people get rich from “frivolous” accident lawsuits. If people overall think this is a shady situation they are more likely to support laws that limit damages and this greatly benefits companies that like to be negligent to save money.

For example, McDonald’s did a lot of work to control the story around the woman who was burned by coffee they served. She only got a very small portion of the total payout in return for *third-degree burns* that debilitated her. Not many people are aware the coffee was served well above the legal limit for its temperature and McDonald’s had been warned to stop several times after other people had been injured. That’s why the payout was huge: McDonald’s knew they were injuring people and refused to change.

It depends.

The general rule for damages is to make the injured party “whole”. Damages are meant to bring the plaintiff back to where they started before the event occurred.

There is what is known as “punitive” damages which is meant to be a punishment. These are scaled to inflict appropriate hardship on the injuring party so as to curb the behavior that led to the injury.

If a large corporation causes someone’s death, the punitive damages would be far greater than if it were an individual of moderate income.

So yes, some people can become what you’d consider wealthy, there is no legal upper limit. Though, in the vast majority of cases victims do not.