In a recent New Jersey Federal court decision, the judge dismissed the claim of an auto accident plaintiff for punitive damages where he was seriously injured due to a vehicular collision. Punitive damages are meant to punish a civil wrongdoer and to deter similar conduct in the future. They are awarded in addition to compensatory damages and can be quite significant in amount.
In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that the other driver was reckless, careless, and negligent because he failed to ensure his vehicle was fit to operate on the road, failed to observe due care and precaution and failed to yield to an oncoming vehicle, failed to properly signal and intent to turn, failed to avoid distracting the operator of the vehicle, failed to observe due care and precaution and to maintain proper and adequate control of the motor vehicle, failed to keep a proper lookout for other vehicles lawfully on the roadway, operated his vehicle into plaintiff’s lane of travel, and failed to be highly vigilant and maintain sufficient control of his vehicle and bring it to a stop on the shortest possible notice. In fact, the plaintiff’s vehicle flipped over as a result.
In New Jersey, the plaintiff’s claim is governed by the Punitive Damages Act. To obtain punitive damages under the Act, the plaintiff must demonstrate “by clear and convincing evidence, that the harm suffered was the result of the defendant’s acts or omissions, and such acts or omissions were actuated by actual malice or accompanied by a wanton and willful disregard of persons who foreseeably might be harmed by those acts or omissions. This burden of proof may not be satisfied by proof of any degree of negligence including gross negligence.”
“Actual malice” means an intentional wrongdoing in the sense of an evil-minded act.
“Wanton and willful disregard” means a deliberate act or omission with knowledge of a high degree of probability of harm to another and reckless indifference to the consequences of such act or omission. As a result, circumstances of aggravation and outrage, beyond the simple commission of a tort, are required for an award of punitive damages.
Because the facts pleaded by the plaintiff amounted to gross negligence at most, the judge determined that punitive damages were not warranted and dismissed plaintiff’s claim.
Care should be taken to avoid making a claim for punitive damages where the accident was caused by ordinary or gross negligence, and could be deemed a frivolous claim and expose the plaintiff and his lawyer to sanctions, legal fees and costs.