Punitive damages are intended to penalize defendants for, and deter them from, intentional and deliberate misconduct that goes far beyond society’s norms. Common wisdom excludes “mere” negligence from this definition because careless defendants would not alter their behavior since it was inadvertent, and not a choice that could be discouraged through a fear of punishment. Thus, many presume that punitive damages are not possible in negligence cases.
In Hutchinson by Hutchinson v. Luddy, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court recently made clear that the possibility of punitive damages exists even in negligence cases. The Court tells us that there is no such thing as a “cause of action” for punitive damages, in the same way that there is a cause of action for negligence or fraud. Rather, punitive damages are just another form of damages that a plaintiff might be able to obtain if that plaintiff wins a cause of action.
A plaintiff who successfully proves that the defendant is liable for some misconduct must also prove a right to damages resulting from that misconduct. For example, a negligent driver is liable for driving carelessly. Any damages flowing from that liability will depend on how much damage was done to the plaintiff’s car, the amount of any hospital bills and the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries. A plaintiff must connect the misconduct creating the liability to the specific harm caused to the plaintiff. The value of this harm is then subject to some form of calculation.
Punitive damages call for something more. The Supreme Court tells us that a defendant has to be consciously putting a person at risk. That defendant must be subjectively intending harm or deliberately disregarding another’s rights.
This kind of knowledge of the wrong being done goes well beyond what is needed to establish liability for negligence. In seeking punitive damages, however, the Court will permit evidence to show that a negligent defendant’s actions went beyond a mere lack of care, and into the realm of intentional and outrageous conduct. The Court states that “the penal and deterrent purpose served by an award of punitive damages is furthered when the outrageous conduct occurs in a case sounding in negligence no less than when an intentional tort is at issue.”
In the Hutchinson case, a jury awarded over $1 Million in punitive damages against an employer for negligent supervision of an employee who had intentionally harmed the plaintiff. At first impression, it is the employee who appears to be the malicious party acting intentionally, while the employer was merely careless in having hired or supervised such a person. The Supreme Court found, however, that the jury could not be excluded from determining for itself whether the faulty supervision reached a knowing or deliberate indifference to its employee’s conduct. The Court remanded the case for the trial judge to determine whether the evidence could or could not sustain the jury’s punitive damage finding. It made clear that the negligence defendant’s knowledge of facts reflecting a high degree of risk to the plaintiff is not enough to prove punitive damages absent the defendant’s actually appreciating that risk.
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