Punitive Damages in Civil Lawsuits
Punitive damages, also known as "exemplary damages," may be awarded by the trier of fact (a jury or a judge, if a jury trial was waived) in addition to "actual damages," which compensate a plaintiff for the losses suffered due to the harm caused by the defendant.
Punitive damages are monetary compensation that is awarded to an injured party to punish a defendant and to deter others from committing similar acts in the future. In other words, unlike actual damages, punitive damages are based on an entirely different public policy consideration that of punishing the defendant or of setting an example for similar wrongdoers.
Punitive damages can be characterized as "quasi-criminal" because they stand halfway between the criminal and civil law. Even though they are awarded to a plaintiff in a private civil lawsuit, they are non-compensatory and in the nature of a criminal fine. Punitive damages were first recognized in English law and were later recognized by the American colonies almost immediately after their founding. Accordingly, punitive damages had become a well-established part of civil law.
Punitive damages are warranted where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.
In deciding if punitive damages are applicable, courts determine the reprehensibility of a defendant's conduct by considering the following: if the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; if the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; if the target of the conduct was financially vulnerable; if the conduct involved repeated actions of a similar type or was an isolated incident; and if the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.
As such, New York courts have found that punitive damages may be recoverable in a wide variety of cases, including personal injury matters. See, e.g., Toomey v. Farley, 2 NY2d 71 (1956) (libel); Gostkowski v. Roman Catholic Church of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, 262 NY 320 (1933) (desecration of a grave); Guariglia v. Price Chopper Operating Co., Inc., 38 AD3d 1043 (3rd Dept. 2007) (leaving unsecured vials of valium and codeine where accessible to two-year-old child); Liberman v. Riverside Memorial Chapel, Inc., 225 AD2d 283 (1st Dept. 1996) (funeral home initiating and instigating city medical examiner's autopsy on decedent contrary to principles of decedent's religion).
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