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Jacque v. Steenberg Homes - 201 Wis. 2d 22, 548 N.W.2d 80 (Ct. App. 1996)

Rule:

The rule in Barnard v. Cohen against awarding punitive damages when actual damages are merely nominal is rationalized in the following manner. Since punitive damages deter bad conduct, courts tolerate the overcompensation of victims because society enjoys the benefit of having bad conduct deterred. Accordingly, if the victim cannot show actual harm, then society has little interest in having this bad, but otherwise harmless, conduct deterred. There are exceptions to the general rule. The rule is relaxed when the victim's constitutional rights are involved, but that exception is specifically limited to actions brought against government actors. 

Facts:

Plaintiffs-appellants landowners were an elderly couple who had been taken advantage of on several occasions to the detriment of their property interests. As a result, when defendant-respondent mobile home company asked permission to cross part of their 170-acre property to deliver a mobile home, they refused. Nevertheless, the company surreptitiously bulldozed a pathway and made the delivery, with some company employees laughing about it later. The landowners filed suit against the company for trespassing on their property. Finding that the landowners suffered only nominal damages to their property, the trial court applied the rule of Barnard v. Cohen and set aside the jury award of $ 100,000 in punitive damages. The landowners appealed, asserting the rule of Barnard v. Cohen was not applicable.

Issue:

Did the Barnard v. Cohen rule against awarding punitive damages when actual damages are "merely nominal" apply in this case, where plaintiff landowners sued defendant mobile home company for trespassing on their property?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of Wisconsin affirmed the judgment, finding that the trial court was correct to apply the Barnard rule. The Barnard rule against awarding punitive damages when actual damages are "merely nominal" is rationalized in the following manner: because punitive damages deter bad conduct, courts tolerate the overcompensation of victims because society enjoys the benefit of having bad conduct deterred. Accordingly, if the victim cannot show actual harm, then society has little interest in having this bad, but otherwise harmless, conduct deterred. 

The Court pointed out that, if the trial court erred in finding that the landowners suffered only nominal damages and they were actually entitled to compensatory damages, the rule in Barnard would not apply at all. But, the Court noted that, because the landowners filed their postverdict motions outside the 20-day window set out in Wis. Stat. § 805.16, the trial court found that it was not competent to address those arguments. As a result, the landowners' ability to appeal those claims was limited, and the Court refused to exercise its discretion under Wis. Stat. § 752.35 to consider the issues. The Court rejected the landowners' arguments that they fit within an exception to the Barnard rule or that a new exception should be created.

The Court believed that the Barnard rule implicitly reflects society's changing values about property rights. Specifically, punitive damages still have a role in securing a person's private property against trespass, but such damages are limited to situations in which the trespasser threatens a marketable value to land. If this aspect of our civil justice system is to change, that change will have to come from our supreme court.

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