In a legal context, the term egregious refers to actions or behaviors that are staggeringly bad, or obviously wrong, beyond any reasonable degree. The term is commonly used to describe conduct of a person, whether a party to a legal action, an attorney or other legal professional, or the court. Egregious behavior may take into account the legality, as well as the morality of a person’s conduct, and is brought to the court’s attention to either bring an end to the person’s actions, or to justify a party’s request for increased damages. To explore this concept, consider the following egregious definition.
Definition of Egregious
- Extraordinary in a bad or negative way, very noticeably bad.
- Conspicuously bad; glaring, or flagrant.
1525-1535 Latin ēgregius
What is Egregious
The word egregious is used to describe something that is extraordinarily, and very noticeably bad. It is often used to describe someone’s, or some entity’s, behavior. While the law generally draws a line in what actions are allowable or good, and which are not allowable, or potentially bad, questions of morality are not so easily answered. Because society’s ideas on morality, questions of right and wrong may become blurry. However, an egregious act is something that is so glaringly wrong, that there can be no question that it is reprehensible.
Egregious Behavior and Guilt
While certain behaviors brought up during a legal matter may be considered to be very wrong, it is not the same thing as being deemed guilty or culpable for the issue at hand. Rather, descriptions of egregious behavior may be used to show a pattern of wrongdoing that lends credence to the accusations.
Linda seemed to have difficulty learning her duties as a new employee at a local minimart, even after weeks of repeatedly being taught how to operate the cash register, how to assign gas pumps to customers, and how to stock the shelves. Linda was also late to work several times a week, and just didn’t show up to work twice. After a few weeks, Linda was fired. She filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, claiming she didn’t like working when her supervisor, George, was present, because he made inappropriate advances toward her.
During the trial, Linda provides evidence that George had a habit of unabashedly hugging, touching, and teasing two of the other employees, though she does not have any evidence or witnesses to substantiate her claim that he acted inappropriately towards her. In this example of egregious behavior, the evidence of George’s inappropriate actions with other employees may be used to establish his propensity for improper acts. It does not, necessarily, establish his guilt or culpability in acting inappropriately with her, nor does it speak to Linda’s poor performance as an employee.
Morally Egregious Behavior
The definition of what may be considered morally egregious behavior is a fluid thing, as it depends on society’s views at the time. In the legal system, judges and juries are often left to decide whether someone’s actions are so morally shocking or reprehensible as to be held liable for the outcome or issue before the court. The implications of holding someone responsible for such behavior vary, depending on the type of legal question.
It is not surprising, then, that the way certain actions are viewed by individual judges, or individual jurors, is unexpected to at least one party to a legal case. For instance, if a woman expects the court to find her husband at fault for their divorce, because he had sexual relations with another woman on several occasions, it is likely that she views his behavior as morally egregious, or as the absolute worst actions a married man could take. The judge in divorce court, who hears complaints of a spouse’s morally unacceptable behavior every single day, may view the spouse’s actions as wrong, but commonplace.
Punitive Damages for Egregious Behavior
Monetary damages awarded to a plaintiff in a legal action are given to compensate the defendant, who is the person wronged by the plaintiff’s actions, for his losses. Awards of money are divided into two basic types: (1) compensatory damages, and (2) punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are awarded to reimburse the defendant for his losses, which may be in the form of personal property damage or loss, personal injury and medical expenses, loss of wages, and other such economically definable losses. Compensatory damages may also be awarded, however, to compensate a party for damages that cannot be easily quantified or defined by a dollar value. These include such things as emotional distress, pain and suffering, and even disability.
Punitive damages are awarded for a completely different reason – to punish the party that has committed some egregious act. Generally, a court will only consider punitive damages if the party committing an egregious act did so willfully or maliciously. Where compensatory damages are awarded with the goal of making the plaintiff whole, reimbursing him for financial and other losses, punitive damages are awarded for the purpose of punishing the defendant, as well as to deter others from engaging in the same conduct in the future.
Neil makes a great deal of money offering what he terms financial counseling and investment opportunities to retired people. He most commonly meets with elderly widows, providing them with information that frightens them about their financial prospects during the remaining years of their lives.
Neil then gives them the “good news,” outlining a financial strategy that he says will ensure they have money for all of their needs. He offers an investment opportunity, for which they give him a sum of money to invest – usually in the neighborhood of $10,000 – $20,000. Neil then pockets the money, not making any investment on his victims’ behalf.
When the family of one of Neil’s “investors” realizes what had taken place, Neil is caught and prosecuted for fraud. Several of his victims band together to file a civil lawsuit, seeking to recover their monies, which total around $200,000.
When the judge rules on the civil lawsuit in this example of egregious behavior, he awards the victims all of their money back, and makes an additional award of $1 million in punitive damages. The punitive damages are to serve as a punishment for Neil’s intentionally harmful actions, as well as to deter others from committing the same crime in the future.
Placing a Dollar Value on Egregious Behavior
Because awards for punitive damages are not based in any set financial formula, the question has been raised as to what is enough, and what is too much. To make the issue even more confusing is that egregious behavior in a financial case, for instance, may be seen as less “terrible” by a jury of “ordinary people,” than egregious behavior in a personal injury, divorce, or child welfare case.
How does one place a dollar value on egregious behavior in any particular legal matter? Another question is whether or not punishing a party with punitive damages violates that party’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause, which states:
“… nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”
This issue was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2003 case in which a terrible car crash left an innocent man dead, and another permanently disabled. In this example of egregious behavior punishment, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $1 million in compensatory damages, and tacked on another $145 million in punitive damages, to punish the man who had caused the wreck by passing a long line of vehicles on a 2-lane roadway. His insurance company cried foul, and appealed.
The Supreme Court ruled on this issue, holding that the award of punitive damages for egregious behavior violates the Due Process Clause only if the amount is not “both reasonable and proportionate to the amount of harm to the plaintiff and to the general damages recovered.”
Judgment based on Egregious Example of Abuse
In the state of New York, a contested divorce requires that one party be “at fault,” having committed an act that violates the marriage, such as adultery, abuse, abandonment, or other behavior. While such an act may be used to obtain a divorce when the other spouse does not agree to the dissolution, it is rarely used to determine how the marital property will be divided between the parties.
New York is a state that holds to “equitable distribution” of marital property, which is not necessarily a 50/50 split, but a division that the court deems fair, given the circumstances of each case. The court may, however, award a larger portion of the marital assets to a spouse when it deems the other spouse’s behavior to be egregious.
For example, in 1999, Theresa Havell filed for divorce in New York, after her husband, Aftab Islam, had abused her and their children for years. After having refused to agree to the divorce, Aftab went into the couple’s bedroom and repeatedly bashed Havell’s head with a barbell. Hearing their mother’s screams, three of the couple’s six children ran into the room, where their father continued to hit their mother, at one point being told by their father that she was dead.
Aftab took a plea bargain in which he pled guilty to the crime of first degree assault, for which he was sentenced to more than five years in prison. At the 2001 divorce trial, Theresa Havell, who had been the primary financial supporter of the family for years, was awarded 95 percent of the couple’s marital assets, which totaled about $17 million. The judge, who characterized Aftab’s actions as attempted murder, rather than first degree assault, called the husband’s actions “so egregious as to shock the conscience.”
Following this judgement, the husband appealed, arguing that a spouse’s actions, even if ruled egregious, should not be a factor in determining the division of marital property, unless those actions had an economic or financial consequence. The New York Supreme Court did not agree, and upheld Theresa Havell’s award of 95 percent of the couple’s assets, and denied Aftab’s request that she be ordered to pay his attorney’s fees.
Aftab had also requested that the court award him a setoff, or allow him to maintain a reserve of the assets above the 5 percent awarded to him, to pay any potential award to Havell if she won her personal injury lawsuit against him. Again, the court denied his request.
Prior to this ruling, equitable distribution in New York divorces led many abusers to believe that, while they may be subject to criminal penalties for their egregious behavior, they would not likely suffer a financial penalty. The court’s decision in this case set a precedent of matching distribution of assets to the actions of a spouse.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Culpable – Deserving of blame or censure.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Precedent – A rule or principle established by a court, which other courts are obligated to follow.