Q: Are there punitive damages in a personal injury case in New York?

A: Yes. Unlike New York wrongful death claims, where punitive damage awards are infrequent and relatively small, punitive damages are routinely awarded in personal injury cases that are heard in the New York courts. The amount of punitive damages can vary considerably from case to case, even in those cases that may seem to be roughly equivalent in both their circumstances and the issues raised at trial. The U.S. Supreme court (BMW of North America v Gore, 1996) has held, however, that any punitive damages awarded must be consistent with:

  • 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.

Q: Are there any reasons why there is such variability in the size of punitive damages awarded?

A: Although there is little information on the subject, it seems that the most likely reason for this variability is due to the fact that most personal and commercial liability insurance policies do not cover punitive damage claims and therefore make it unlikely that a plaintiff who is awarded a large sum would have a reasonable hope of ever collecting a large award.

If, on the other hand, punitive damages are being sought from a defendant that is employed by a self-insured entity (such as the City of New York), a plaintiff’s attorney will usually ask for a sum in punitive damages that exceeds his or her request for the actual damages suffered by the client.

Q: What did the Supreme Court mean by “degree of reprehensibility?”

A: While “all men are created equal…,” all crimes are not equal in their potential punishments. As an example, when a little old lady on her way to Sunday Morning Mass has her purse stolen, we would think that such a crime is reprehensible. It is not as reprehensible as if the same little old lady had her purse stolen and was then beaten into a coma by her assailant. In the latter case, the assailant would face a harsher sentence than in the first case, but we would not send the first purse snatcher to prison on a 7 to 10 because the seriousness of the crime in no way justified the punishment.

Q: What did they mean by the ratio of the award to the actual harm inflicted?

A: In this instance the Supreme Court was insisting that only very serious injuries deserve very large awards. By way of another example, if a man slips on a wet floor at the coffee shop and suffers a sprained wrist while attempting to catch himself, he might be entitled to a few hundred dollars in medical expenses and lost wages if he missed a few days of work. This same individual would not be entitled to a damages award of $75,000 for the same injury, no matter how negligent the coffee shop owner may have been by allowing the floor to remain wet.

Q: What did the Supreme Court mean by penalties for comparable misconduct?

A: In short, the Court reasoned that an infraction that could be punished by a traffic ticket should not be punished as it were armed robbery. The Court’s position was basically an extension of its other two criteria for determining how “reasonable” an award of punitive damages is when compared to what the punishment would have been if the negligent act had been a crime. In essence, the Court was asking if going 10 mph over the posted speed limit and causing a minor traffic accident is as serious as going 40 mph over the speed limit and causing an accident that results in three fatalities.

In summary, punitive damages can be awarded in New York personal injury lawsuits but such awards do not tend to be large unless there are very special circumstances at play.