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The Theory Behind Punitive Damages

Sharon Harvey, Esquire

The law in Pennsylvania allows the imposition of punitive damages on1y for conduct that is outrageous The defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of must be evaluated Chambers v. Montgomery, 411 Pa. 339, 492 A. 2d 355 (1963). Punitive damages are normally allowed in tort actions but punitive damages have also been allowed in contract actions when one parties action has been so outrageous that the Court believed that an award of punitive damages was warranted. SHV Coal, Inc. v. Continental Grain Co. 526 Pa. 489, 587 A. 2d 702 (1991). Punitive damages are also available in an equity action if the chancellor in equity determines that a person's actions arise to outrageous conduct.

In order to establish a claim of punitive damages, it is essential that the complaint identify the material facts supporting allegations of malicious, wanton, willful, or  oppressive conduct. To constitute willful or wanton conduct, there must be a realization, by the actor, of the possibility of the injury resulting from his act. Willful misconduct means that the actor desired to bring about the result that followed, or at least that he was aware that it was substantially certain to ensue. Wanton misconduct means that the  actor has intentionally done an act of unreasonable character in disregard of a risk known to him or so obvious that he must be taken to have been unaware of it, and so great as to  make it highly probably that harm would follow.

In Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 508-Pa. 154, 494 A. 2d 1088  the Pennsylvania Supreme Court discussed the concept of reckless indifference to the rights of others and the type of conduct necessary to establish punitive damages. The Supreme Court focused on the comments to the Section 908(2) of the Restatement Second or Torts.  The comments require that the outrageous conduct be accompanied by a bad motive or wilh reckless indifference to the interests of others. The Supreme Court made in clear in Martin(Supra) that punitive damages cannot be awarded if the defendant's mental state rises only to gross negligence. Accord Thomas v. American Cytoscope Makers, Inc.  415 F. Supp. 255 (E.D. Pa. 1967) (applying Pa. law to a products liability acton.)

Recklessness requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts that would disclose this danger to any reasonable man. To constitute outrageous conduct" acts must be done with a bad motive or with a reckless indifference to the interests of others." Willful misconduct means that the actor desied to bring about the result that followed, or at least that he was aware that it was substantially certain to ensue.

It is clear that the Courts evaluate the mental state of the defendant in determining whether or not the issue of punitive damages should be submitted to the jury.  The defendani's mental state and intention to cause harm or be indifferent to the possibility of causing extreme harm is an essential element in any claim for punitive damages.