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August 27, 2011

Evidence Of Bad Conduct In Punitive Damages Cases

By Michael H. Joseph

As a New York trial lawyer, I can tell you that juries award higher damage awards where there is a morally repugnant defendant or a defendant that acts in a morally culpable way.

Typically in simple negligence cases, Judges will exclude moral evidence or evidence of bad conduct on other occasions as unduly prejudicial. However, where a single act is part of a larger course of conduct our New York lawyers typically include a claim for punitive damages. Punitive damages are particularly suited for car accidents and truck accidents involving drunk drivers, wrongful death, sexual assaults, malicious prosecution, business cases involving fraud and police misconduct cases.

Punitive damages are different than compensatory damages because while compensatory damages for negligence or contract cases are intended to just make the injured party whole, the punitive damages are intended to punish a morally culpable defendant and to deter conduct of the defendant and others like them.

So bad conduct may not be relevant in a negligence case, but it is relevant in punitive damages cases. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that bad act evidence is relevant to reprehensibility. The Supreme Court has recognized that a Plaintiff may show harm to others in order to demonstrate the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct, because evidence of actual harm to non-parties can help to show that the conduct that harmed the plaintiff also posed a substantial risk of harm to the general public, and so was particularly reprehensible. In determining reprehensibility, a jury may properly take into account the fact that conduct that risks harm to many is likely more reprehensible than conduct that risks harm to only a few.

However, the Supreme Court has also held that a jury may not punish the defendants by awarding damages to punish defendants for harm done to others who are not Plaintiffs in the instant lawsuit. Our New York attorneys will continue to seek high punitive damages in their representation of the citizens of New York City and Westchester who have been aggrieved by reprehensible defendants.

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