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Discretion of Fact Finder

In cases where a court intends to award punitive damages, it has to be determined whether the submitted evidence would be sufficient to support an award of punitive damages.  The court hast to exercise due care and caution while awarding punitive damages since they are penal in nature.  It is the jury’s or court’s discretion whether punitive damages are awarded or not since they are the triers of fact.  It is for the fact finder to decide on the question of awarding punitive damages.

As the jury or court holds the right to exercise discretion over awarding punitive damages, it is not necessary for the fact finder to order such damages if it finds out that the defendant’s acts were oppressive or malicious or the evidence otherwise warranted punitive damages.  Once punitive damages are awarded, only a finding of clear abuse of discretion can be grounds for reversal.

In an action demanding punitive damages, the fact finder, in tandem with all other issues presented has to determine whether punitive damages shall be allowed by using the standards set out by the state’s laws.  The fact finder may make an award of punitive damages only if the plaintiff proves that the defendant’s conduct was outrageous, that s/he acted with malice or bad motives, or it behavior evidences reckless indifference to the interest of another person.  These facts are to be proved by substantial evidence.

In Miller v. City of W. Columbia, 322 S.C. 224 (S.C. 1996), a suit was brought by an assistant police chief (respondent) against city administrator and other officials (appellants) alleging defamation, outrage, and constructive wrongful discharge after he was accused of sexually harassing an employee.  The appellate court held that the trial court properly denied the officials’ motion for a new trial, stating that they had “opened the door” to testimony about the dispatcher’s relationship with another man and that the jury instructions were proper. Finally, it held that the damages against the city administrator were not excessive, given the effect of the statement on the chief’s career and that the trial court had considered the necessary factors in reviewing the punitive damages.  While deciding the case, the appellate court held that “the award of actual and punitive damages remains within the discretion of the jury, as reviewed by the trial judge.  Only when the trial court’s discretion is abused, amounting to an error of law, does it become the duty of the appellate court to set aside the award.  Moreover, when considering whether or not the verdict is excessive, if there is substantial evidence to sustain the verdict, it will not be disturbed.  The appellate court will intervene only where the verdict is so grossly excessive and the amount awarded is so shockingly disproportionate to the injuries to indicate that it was the result of caprice, passion, prejudice, or other considerations not found on the evidence.”

Inside Discretion of Fact Finder