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Punitive damages are in the nature of a demand arising out of a single injurious occurrence, a theory of relief arising out of the same transaction or occurrence, a remedy. Courts rest the analysis of punitive damages not on the classification of the underlying tort justifying compensatory damages but on the nature of the wrongdoer's conduct. Although the usual aggravating circumstances required for the recovery of punitive damages are often found as substantive elements of the tort itself, a claim for punitive damages may be supported by proof of aggravating circumstances beyond those supporting compensatory damages. The question whether punitive damages are permissible is not to be disposed of on grounds that what the plaintiffs assert is a breach-of-contract action, but rather must be considered under a discussion of whether the facts surrounding the tort of bad faith evidence such conduct that punitive or exemplary damages are permissible.
Respondents, survivors and estates, filed two lawsuits against appellant Ford Motor Company, as a result of an automobile accident that claimed two lives. The trial court denied appellant’s motion to dismiss the punitive damages claims. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals divided the punitive damages claims into categories, concluding that punitive damages were recoverable in some categories and not others. Appellant challenged the decision.
Did the appellate court err in dividing the punitive damages claims into categories, and in concluding that punitive damages were recoverable in some categories and not others?
Yes, except with respect to the decision holding that punitive damages were not recoverable in a wrongful death action.
The court disagreed with the appellate court’s decision to divide the punitive damages claims into categories. According to the court, punitive damages were recoverable in suits predicated on both negligence and strict liability. The court also held that punitive damages were recoverable in both kinds of actions by parents. The court, however, agreed with the appeals court that punitive damages were recoverable in an action which survived the death of the injured person and were not recoverable in a wrongful death action. The court rejected the appellant's suggestion that punitive damages arising from a single product were limited to a single award.