In addition to awarding damages to compensate plaintiffs for their injuries, a jury may award punitive damages  if the jurors find that the acts of the defendant that caused the injury complained of were wanton and reckless or malicious, represent a high degree of immorality or show such wanton dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations. The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant and to thereby discourage the defendant and others from acting in a similar way in the future.

Recent cases have highlighted some of the issues facing appellate courts when plaintiffs claim punitive damages.

In Cardoza v. City of New York (1st Dept. 2016), an excessive force and malicious prosecution case, a Bronx County jury awarded 49 year old William Cardoza pain and suffering damages for extensive hand injuries in the sum of $2,500,000 (previously discussed by us here) as well as punitive damages in the sum of $1,500,000 ($750,000 against each of the two involved police officers). The trial judge vacated the award of punitive damages finding that there had been no showing by clear and convincing evidence that the arresting police officers were motivated by actual malice or acted in reckless disregard of plaintiff’s rights.

The appellate court reinstated $150,000 of the punitive damage awards ($75,000 against each officer) noting that the punitive damages were tied to plaintiff’s constitutional tort claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which stemmed directly from plaintiff’s excessive force and malicious prosecution claims. The court stated that punitive damages are available in Section 1983 actions “when a defendant’s conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to federally protected rights of others.” The court held that there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have reasonably concluded that the officers acted with reckless indifference or malice when they initiated the criminal prosecution against plaintiff without probable cause and used excessive force during his arrest.

In Chiara v. Dernago (2d Dept. 2015), a woman in a rear-end car crash case was awarded pain and suffering damages in the sum of $160,000 for her neck injury (previously discussed by us here) plus punitive damages in the sum of $70,000. On appeal both damages awards were affirmed. The defendant driver was arrested at the scene and charged with driving while intoxicated. He pled guilty a month later and went to jail for four months. The award of punitive damages was based upon plaintiff’s claim that not only was defendant a drunk driver with a blood alcohol test more than two times the legal limit but also that his conduct was so outrageous that it amounted to wanton and reckless behavior that should be punished.

In Hotaling v. Carter (4th Dept. 2016), a college student punched in the face and knocked unconscious sustaining multiple facial fractures and a concussion was awarded $40,000 for pain and suffering damages but his punitive damages claim was dismissed at trial despite the fact that the defendant had been charged with misdemeanor assault and pled guilty to harassment. The appellate court affirmed the pain and suffering damages award but agreed with plaintiff that the punitive damages claim should not have been dismissed in view of defendant’s plea allocution and conviction of harassment in the second degree. The case was remitted for a trial on the punitive damages claim.

In Anderson v. County of Suffolk (2d Cir. 2015), plaintiff had been arrested on an outstanding warrant and taken to a county police precinct for processing and detained overnight. During his detention, he was removed from his cell and assaulted by police officers sustaining a swollen eye, a fractured nose, lacerations and contusions. He claimed these and other injuries including knee derangement, back pain and neck pain. A jury in federal district court in Brooklyn ruled in plaintiff’s favor as to his excessive force and battery claims and awarded him $20,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. The punitive damages award was upheld on a post-trial motion with the judge considering the three guideposts for evaluating the size of a punitive damages award set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in BMW of North America v. Gore (1996) – the degree of reprehensibility of defendant’s conduct, the punitive award’s ratio to the actual harm inflicted and the civil or criminal penalties that could be imposed for comparable misconduct.  The federal appellate court affirmed the trial judge’s order upholding the punitive damages award.

In Morse v. Fusto (2d Cir. 2015), a 55 year old dentist was indicted by a Kings County grand jury on charges of grand larceny and offering a false instrument for filing in connection with alleged false billing to Medicaid. After his acquittal, plaintiff claimed in a federal court lawsuit that he’d been deprived of his constitutional right to a fair criminal trial by a prosecutor and an investigator who knowingly created false or misleading evidence. A jury in the federal district court in Brooklyn rendered a verdict in plaintiff’s favor on liability and awarded him mental and emotional pain and suffering damages in the sum of $2,500,000. In addition, they awarded lost earnings in the sum of $4,224,936 and punitive damages in the sum of $1,000,000. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to $100,000 (and the emotional distress damages to $400,000). Plaintiff accepted the remittitur and the federal appellate court affirmed the lower court’s denial of defendants’ motions for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial.

Inside Information:

  • Claims for punitive damages are generally not covered by insurance; however, when such awards are made against police officers their employers, such as the City of New York, usually will indemnify them for punitive damage awards and the officers will not have to pay out of pocket. We understand that’s exactly what occurred in the Cardoza case discussed above.
  • Delone Carter, the defendant in the Hotaling case discussed above, was a football star at Syracuse University who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts (an NFL team) in 2011 and signed a four-year contract worth roughly $2,000,000 for the four years. He was traded to the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, cut later that year, then signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars and released in 2014.