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Court Dismisses Claim for Punitive Damages Alleged in Auto Accident Case

By on March 17, 2017 in Awards with 0 Comments

Sometimes plaintiffs throw in claims for punitive damages in what is obviously a simple negligence claim arising from an automobile accident. In the District Court case, Gillman v. Rakouskas, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10835 (D.N.J. Jan. 26, 2017), the plaintiffs George and Florence Gillman sued defendants Michael and Elaine Rakouskas, alleging negligence and gross negligence and requested both compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants due to a motor vehicle accident between plaintiff George Gillman (“Gillman”) and defendant Elaine Rakouskas (“Rakouskas”). Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the punitive damages claims.

Plaintiffs alleged that, while Gillman was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, the defendant’s vehicle suddenly struck the right shoulder, ricocheted in the opposite direction towards plaintiff’s vehicle, causing both vehicles to collide. Gillman’s vehicle began to spin uncontrollably and flipped over, causing him multiple injuries.

Plaintiffs claimed that defendant Rakouskas was reckless in that she consciously and intentionally operated her vehicle in such a manner that she knew injury to another was probable and/or operated her vehicle with wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of others and in reckless disregard of the consequences of her acts. Plaintiff provided a long list of actions that defendant failed to take that caused the automobile accident, such as failing to observe due care in operating her vehicle, disregarding traffic lanes, patterns and other devices, being inattentive, and operating her vehicle into plaintiff’s lane of travel.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim, arguing that plaintiffs failed to state a claim with regard to this claim for damages. The District Court noted that punitive damages are only available in New Jersey if the plaintiff demonstrates that the defendant acted with the level of culpability as required by the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.9, et seq. (“PDA”).

Under the PDA, for the plaintiff to obtain a punitive damages award, the plaintiff must show “by clear and convincing evidence, that the harm suffered was the result of the defendant’s acts or omissions, and such acts or omissions were actuated by actual malice or accompanied by a wanton and willful disregard of persons who foreseeably might be harmed by those acts or omissions.” Actual malice is defined as “an intentional wrongdoing in the sense of an evil-minded act.” As for willful and wanton conduct, that means “a deliberate act or omission with knowledge of a high degree of probability of harm to another and reckless indifference to the consequences of such act or omission.”

The Court pointed out that mere commission of a tort is insufficient to meet the standard for an award of punitive damages. Circumstances of aggravation and outrage are needed to justify punitive damages.

The defendants argued that plaintiffs failed to plead any facts showing actual malice or meeting the wanton or willful disregard standard. The District Court agreed.

In reviewing the allegations of the complaint, the Court found no evil-minded act or a deliberate act or omission that was sufficient to state a claim for punitive damages. Neither negligence nor gross negligence will suffice as a basis for punitive damages. The mere allegation that defendant operated the vehicle in a “conscious and intentional” manner, that she knew injury to another was probable, and/or operated it with “wanton and reckless” disregard of the consequences was a legal conclusion without any factual support in the complaint.

Thus, the District Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim.

This case points out the importance in reviewing a complaint’s claims for relief carefully and, if punitive damages are alleged in a simple negligence case, the defendant should move to dismiss that claim well before trial to ensure that a punitive damages claim would not be submitted to a jury. Unless the circumstances are egregious, this motion to dismiss would typically be successful.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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