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Term of Art

court damages government federal

A word or phrase that has special meaning in a particular context.

A term of art is a word or phrase that has a particular meaning. Terms of art abound in the law. For example, the phrase double jeopardy can be used in common parlance to describe any situation that poses two risks. In the law, DOUBLE JEOPARDY refers specifically to an impermissible second trial of a defendant for the same offense that gave rise to the first trial.

The classification of a word or phrase as a term of art can have legal consequences. In Molzof v. United States, 502 U.S. 301, 112 S. Ct. 711, 116 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1992), Shirley M. Molzof brought suit against the federal government after her husband, Robert E. Molzof, suffered irreversible brain damage while under the care of government hospital workers. The federal government conceded liability, and the parties tried the issue of damages before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. Molzof had brought the claim as executor of her husband's estate under the FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT (FTCA) (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1346(b), 2671–2680 [1988]), which prohibits the assessment of PUNITIVE DAMAGES against the federal government. The court granted recovery to Molzof for her husband's injuries that resulted from the NEGLIGENCE of federal employees, but it denied recovery for future medical expenses and for loss of enjoyment of life. According to the court, such damages were punitive damages, which could not be recovered against the federal government.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with the trial court, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. According to the Court, punitive damages is a legal term of art that has a widely accepted common-law meaning under state law. Congress was aware of this meaning at the time it passed the FTCA. Under traditional common-law principles, punitive damages are designed to punish a party. Since damages for future medical expenses and for loss of enjoyment of life were meant to compensate Molzof rather than punish the government, the Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit.

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