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Jacque v. Steenberg Homes - 209 Wis. 2d 605, 563 N.W.2d 154 (1997)

Rule:

To determine whether, as a matter of law, the question of punitive damages should have been submitted to the jury, the reviewing court reviews the record de novo. 

Facts:

Defendant Steenberg Homes had a mobile home to deliver. Unfortunately for plaintiffs Harvey and Lois Jacque, the easiest route of delivery was across their land. Despite adamant protests by the Jacques, Steenberg plowed a path through the Jacques' snow-covered field and via that path, delivered the mobile home. Consequently, the Jacques sued Steenberg Homes for intentional trespass in Wisconsin state court. At trial, Steenberg Homes conceded the intentional trespass, but argued that no compensatory damages had been proved, and that punitive damages could not be awarded without compensatory damages. Although the jury awarded the Jacques $ 1 in nominal damages and $ 100,000 in punitive damages, the circuit court set aside the jury's award of $ 100,000. The court of appeals affirmed, reluctantly concluding that it could not reinstate the punitive damages because it was bound by precedent establishing that an award of nominal damages did not sustain a punitive damage award. 

Issue:

May punitive damages be awarded when nominal damages were awarded for an intentional trespass to land?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court held that when nominal damages were awarded for an intentional trespass to land, punitive damages may be awarded in the discretion of the jury. Because the Jacques' legal right to exclude all others from their land was involved, the court noted that the law recognized that actual harm occurred in every trespass. In the case of intentional trespass to land, the nominal damage award represented the recognition that actual harm had occurred. The decision, which carved an exception to precedent, applied to Steenberg Homes as a reward to the Jacques who persevered in attacking an unsound rule. The court also held that the amount of punitive damages was not excessive because the Steenberg Homes's conduct was egregious and deceitful.

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