What is Required for an Award of Punitive Damages

The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey has been called upon three times in recent weeks to clarify what is required for a plaintiff to be awarded punitive damages. In each instance, District Judges reinforced that negligence, or even gross negligence, is not sufficient. Instead, under New Jersey law, there must be clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, or wanton and willful disregard of others. This requires an intentional wrongdoing, an evil-minded act, or a deliberate act or failure to act that creates a high probability that another person will be harmed. In each case, the Court relied upon the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act which clearly sets out what is and what is not sufficient to justify awarding punitive damages. Under the Act, punitive damages should be awarded where the plaintiff can demonstrate all of the following:

(1) The likelihood, at the relevant time, that serious harm would arise from the defendant’s conduct;
(2) The defendant’s awareness of reckless disregard of the likelihood that the serious harm at issue would arise from the defendant’s conduct;
(3) The conduct of the defendant upon learning that its initial conduct would likely cause harm; and
(4) The duration of the conduct or any concealment of it by the defendant.

N.J.S.A §2A:15-5.12(b). All three cases recently decided by the District Court found that the plaintiffs were seeking to stretch negligence too far to obtain punitive damages.

First, in a case against Six Flags Great Adventure theme park, the plaintiff sought punitive damages against the theme park after he was struck in the head by a cell phone while riding a roller coaster. He claimed that it was gross negligence on the part of the theme park because such an occurrence was obvious. The Court struck the punitive damages request because the plaintiff was unable to allege any actual malice or disregard for others, or show that there was a deliberate act that created a high probability of harm

The second case involved a husband and wife who sought punitive damages against another driver for causing an accident on the Interstate. Despite using the correct legal phrases which mirrored the Punitive Damages Act, the actual facts failed to demonstrate any intentional malice or recklessness, but merely a normal motor vehicle accident on a highway. This result was not surprising as punitive damages have rarely been awarded in automobile accidents.

In the most recently decided case, the plaintiff sought punitive damages against a nurse based upon the death of her newborn son. Plaintiff attempted to demonstrate that the nurse repeatedly failed in her duties in so many obvious respects that it was evidence of a willful and wanton disregard for the unborn child and mother. The Court found that plaintiff had presented evidence of a continuous and pervasive pattern of negligence, but not an intentional wrongdoing, evil mindedness, willful and wanton disregard, or some deliberate act or failure to act knowing it would harm the child and mother. As bad as it may have been, it was simply not enough.

In all three cases the Court relied upon the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act and reinforced that punitive damages are not meant to be awarded where a person commits a negligent or grossly negligent act. Instead, one can only seek punitive damages where the plaintiff is a victim of some intentional act by a person intending to cause harm, or where a person acts with such a high level of reckless disregard for others that it could be considered willful and wanton.

So what actually justifies punitive damages? A very simple scenario is an assault. If a person intentionally strikes another person, there is clear and convincing evidence of actual malice. That person intended to harm another. Thus, a claim for punitive damages would be allowed to proceed. Another clear example would be fraud; where a person intentionally makes a false statement with the intent to induce the other to take an action or enter into an agreement.

A more gray area would be where a person is driving while drunk and causes an accident. In such a situation, the person has clearly demonstrated deliberate indifference to those around him on the road. It is understood in our society that when driving a car on the road, the driver is responsible for operating it in a safe manner and owes a legal duty to other drivers to drive safe. The question would be whether those acts were just dangerous and created the possibility that harm could result, or if those acts were so egregious that it was highly likely to result in harm. New Jersey courts have found that where the driver had a history of intoxication, admitted to blackouts, had no memory of the accident, was observed appearing intoxicated by witnesses, and sped away, punitive damages were appropriate.

There are many other examples when the courts of New Jersey have ruled it would be appropriate to seek punitive damages. The attorneys at Price, Meese, Shulman & D’Arminio, PC, are experienced in punitive damage claims and can assist you in your legal claim. If you are unsure about your claim and wish to speak with an attorney who can tell you, please contact the author, Terence Steed, Esq., at (201)391-3737.