Power and Discretion To Award Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are awarded with the intent to punish the tortfeasor.  As opposed to compensatory damages, it is not a plaintiff’s right or entitlement.  The court has discretionary powers over an award of punitive damages.  It is also subject to limitations.  However, exemplary damages are recoverable as a matter of legal right under some authority in certain situations.

The court hast to exercise due care and caution while awarding punitive damages since they are penal in nature.  In most of the states, punitive damages are awarded if the tort was committed with the intent to harm and not caused by mere negligence.  There is no limit to the amount that a party may be ordered to pay as punitive damages.

In some jurisdictions, punitive damages are available under common law.  However, others hold that an award of punitive damages has to be authorized by a legislature or a statute.  The state has wide powers in modifying the sanction of punitive damages.

Even though awards of punitive damages have been recognized by law for a long time, they are subject to constitutional scrutiny.  Though states have wide powers over granting punitive damages, they are subject to limitations.  States, while exercising its powers have to strictly comply with the “Due Process” rules.  The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from imposing grossly excessive punishment on a tortfeasor.  However, punitive damages may properly be imposed to further a state’s legitimate interests in punishing unlawful conduct and deterring its repetition.

In Cappetta v. Lippman, 913 F. Supp. 302 (S.D.N.Y. 1996), a plaintiff client objected to a magistrate’s report and recommendation ordering defendant attorney to pay the client damages for attorney malpractice.  The attorney submitted papers in opposition to the objections.  The client objected to the magistrate’s findings that the attorney was neither liable for any damages for failing to prosecute the client’s underlying civil action, nor for any punitive damages for that alleged attorney malpractice.  The court accepted and adopted the magistrate’s recommendations and awarded damages to the client with the prejudgment interest that was stated in the report.  While deciding that the attorney was only liable for damages for the cost of the client’s hiring of a new firm in order to attempt to re-open the underlying action that was dismissed, court stated that “New York State law provides that punitive damages are not recoverable for an ordinary breach of contract.  However where a cause of action involves fraud or a breach of contract, punitive damages may be awarded if a defendant attorney’s conduct was so outrageous as to evince a high degree of moral turpitude and showing such wanton dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations.”


Inside Power and Discretion To Award Punitive Damages