The term “willful” describes the intentional, deliberate acts a person engages in for the purpose of reaching a goal. Willful, in the legal world, usually describes something that someone meant to do and that is illegal. For example, if someone is willful in his decision to engage in road rage, this means that he knew that what he was doing was wrong, but that he did it anyway because he wanted to “win.” To explore this concept, consider the following willful definition.

Definition of Willful


  1. An intentional or deliberate act carried out by an individual as a way to complete an objective.


1150 – 1200     Middle English

What is a Willful Act?

A willful act is an act that a person commits deliberately. In other words, there is no doubt that he knew what he was doing when he engaged in that behavior. In the legal world, describing an act as “willful” is almost always saying that what the person did was wrong, that he knew it was wrong, and that he did it anyway.

Willful Negligence

Negligence is a person’s failure to take care in his actions. When someone displays willful negligence, this means that he intentionally or deliberately engaged in a negligent act. For example, this type of negligence occurs when a company promotes a product that it knows can result in consumers suffering an injury as the result of using that product. The company failed to protect its consumers, even failed to warn them about the potential hazards of using their product, but they sold it anyway.

Willful, Wanton, Reckless Conduct

Whether an individual engaged in willful, wanton, reckless conduct determines whether he is guilty of a crime. For instance, if a person hits someone with his car while driving, it may be an accident, or it may be deliberate. The best way to know for sure is to examine the evidence.

If the driver was driving 60 mph in a residential area when he hit the victim, then a prosecutor can charge him with willful conduct because he should have known that driving at that rate of speed could result in disaster. If, however, he was driving the speed limit, then the prosecutor should conduct a more thorough investigation to rule out willful, wanton, reckless conduct.

To prove willful, wanton, reckless conduct, a prosecutor must be able to show that the defendant had common sense knowledge that his actions could result in someone suffering an injury. If the defendant showed a “wanton disregard” for the safety of others, then his conduct was intentional, and a judge or jury would punish him accordingly.

Willful Violation

The term “willful violation” refers to a violation that occurs in the workplace. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), a willful violation is an act that a person engages in that intentionally disregards the requirements set forth by OSHA. For instance, if the OSHA requirements state that an employee should not smoke cigarettes in his office, and he does so anyway, then he is committing a deliberate violation of OSHA’s terms.

Willful Example Involving an Oil Spill

The case of Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (2008) presents an example of willful, wanton, reckless conduct. Here, Joseph Hazelwood, an alcoholic who had relapsed, worked for Exxon Valdez. The company knew that Hazelwood had relapsed, however they did not terminate his employment nor move him to a different role. As a result, Exxon’s supertanker, which Hazelwood was in charge of, spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989. Hazelwood’s blood alcohol level was still high eleven hours after the spill.

Exxon’s Damages and Lawsuits

This mistake cost Exxon inordinate amounts of money. For instance, as a result of the spill, Exxon:

  • Paid over $2 billion in clean-up efforts
  • Pled guilty to criminal violations, which included fines
  • Settled a civil action filed by the U.S. and Alaska in the amount of $900 million
  • Paid over $300 million voluntarily to private parties to compensate for the damage

In addition to this, those whose businesses had suffered significant losses as a result of the oil spill inevitably sued Exxon. During the first part of the trial, the jury found both Exxon and Hazelwood had acted recklessly and opened themselves up to punitive damages.

During the second part of the trial, the jury awarded nearly $290 million in compensatory damages to some of the plaintiffs (the others had previously settled for over $20 million). During the third and final phase of the trial, the jury awarded punitive damages in the amounts of $5 billion against Exxon, and another $5,000 against Hazelwood.

Appeal and U.S. Supreme Court

Exxon, of course, appealed the trial court’s decision, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the punitive award three times before finally dropping it down to $2.5 billion. Exxon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to hear the case. The Court consolidated the remaining cases so as to make one blanket ruling. The Court then had to answer two questions:

  1. Did maritime law allow judges to award punitive damages for employee negligence? In other words, should they hold Exxon liable for Hazelwood’s actions?
  2. Did maritime law allow judges to rule on cases like these when Congress has not authorized them to do so?


Justice Samuel Alito recused himself from this case because he owned Exxon stock. The remaining judges were then divided 4 : 4 on the first issue. Therefore, the Court allowed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to stand but noted that it should not become precedent due to the Court’s split. On the second issue, the Court held 5 : 4 that yes, judges can rule on cases wherein Congress has not provided legislation for direction. However, they noted that once Congress passes related legislation, courts must comply with that update.

As for the punitive damages, the Court ruled that Exxon should not have to pay beyond the $500 million it had already paid to compensate victims for this foul-up. They remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to recalculate the punitive damages award. Justice David Souter delivered the Court’s opinion, which read, in part:

“The provision of the CWA respecting daily fines confirms our judgment that anything greater would be excessive here and in cases of this type. Congress set criminal penalties of up to $25,000 per day for negligent violations of pollution restrictions, and up to $50,000 per day for knowing ones. 33 U. S. C. §§1319(c)(1), (2). Discretion to double the penalty for knowing action compares to discretion to double the civil liability on conduct going beyond negligence and meriting punitive treatment. And our explanation of the constitutional upper limit confirms that the 1:1 ratio is not too low. In State Farm, we said that a single-digit maximum is appropriate in all but the most exceptional of cases, and “[w]hen compensatory damages are substantial, then a lesser ratio, perhaps only equal to compensatory damages, can reach the outermost limit of the due process guarantee.” (Citation omitted.)

“Applying this standard to the present case, we take for granted the District Court’s calculation of the total relevant compensatory damages at $507.5 million. See In re Exxon Valdez, 236 F. Supp. 2d 1043, 1063 (D. Alaska 2002). A punitive-to-compensatory ratio of 1:1 thus yields maximum punitive damages in that amount.”

We therefore vacate the judgment and remand the case for the Court of Appeals to remit the punitive damages award accordingly.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Compensatory Damages – An award of money in compensation for actual economic loss, property damage, or injury, not including punitive damages.
  • 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.
  • Litigant – An individual participating in a lawsuit.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Prosecutor – A lawyer who conducts a case against a defendant in a criminal trial.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages, to punish the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.