Certain state jurisdictions do not allow punitive damages to be recovered in equity. This is because a court of equity does not have the power to award punitive damages without a statute expressly granting it the power. The principles and practice of equity do not support the award of punitive damages. A litigant’s claim for punitive damages gets automatically waived by seeking equitable relief.
However, in certain cases, a court of equitable jurisdiction may award punitive damages. While deciding traditional equity matters, courts have the power to award punitive damages in jurisdictions where the rules of civil procedure establish only one form of civil action.
Taylor v. Ford Motor Co., 2 F.2d 473 (D. Ill. 1924) is a patent infringement case that was filed by plaintiff patentee against defendant, an automobile manufacturer. The patentee submitted a number of interrogatories to the auto manufacturer. Several of the interrogatories were related to the patentee’s claim for punitive damages. The auto manufacturer objected to answering those interrogatories on the ground that a court of equity did not have the jurisdiction to compel a discovery in an action that sought damages for the purpose of inflicting punishment on the defendant. The court held that (1) U.S. Rev. Stat. § 4919, U.S. Comp. Stat. § 9464, which provided for actions at law to recover damages for infringement of patents, authorized a court of equity to enter judgment for any sum above the amount found by the verdict as the actual damages sustained, according to the circumstances of the case, not exceeding three times the amount of such verdict. It further stated that (2) U.S. Rev. Stat. § 4921 gave a court of equity in a patent infringement case the power to increase damages in its discretion.
Although the court directed the automobile manufacturer to answer interrogatories, it stated that “in the absence of express statutory provision, a court of equity is without authority to assess exemplary or punitive damages.”