Punitive damages are allowable in personal injury actions based upon negligence, if such negligence amounts to flagrant misconduct. Malice, a prerequisite to the allowance of punitive damages, may be established by a showing that the acts committed by the defendant were committed recklessly, wantonly, or without regard to the rights of plaintiff or of people in general. Punitive or exemplary damages are intended to act as a deterrent upon the libelor so that he will not repeat the offense, and to serve as a warning to others. They are intended as punishment for gross misbehavior for the good of the public.
Plaintiff customer filed an action against defendant utility company, and others, seeking damages for injuries sustained when she fell on wax drippings in a darkened apartment stairway. The jury found in favor of plaintiff and awarded $ 5 million in punitive damages. Defendant utility company filed a post-verdict motion to set aside the findings or alternatively to reduce the punitive damages award. The court denied defendant's motion to set aside the findings, but granted defendant's request to reduce the damages.
Was plaintiff entitled to punitive damages?
Yes; there was a sufficient basis for finding that defendant had been grossly negligent.
The court held that defendant was liable for injuries resulting from its interruption of electrical services to the apartment where the conduct of defendant caused a foreseeable injury to a foreseeable plaintiff. The court found defendant's compliance with the notice requirements of N.Y. Transp. Law § 15 did not relieve defendant of its common-law tort liability because defendant still had the duty to act reasonable. The court determined there was a sufficient basis for finding defendant was grossly negligent where, after business hours on a Friday evening, its employees terminated electrical services to the common area of an apartment building occupied by 500 tenants.