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Punitive Damages Awards in Idaho

By Joseph G. Ballstaedt

Idaho law defines punitive damages as “damages . . . over and above what will compensate the [suing party] for actual personal injury and property damage.” They are extra damages that serve the public policies of punishing a wrongdoer and deterring future, similar behavior. For example, if a trespasser enters your property and cuts down a tree worth $100, you could seek compensation for property damages in the amount of $100. In addition to these compensatory damages, you could also obtain punitive damages by showing by clear and convincing evidence that the trespasser’s behavior was “oppressive, fraudulent, malicious or outrageous.”

A claim for punitive damages is not alleged like other claims; it cannot be included in the original complaint. A party can only seek punitive damages at trial if, after filing the original complaint, it receives permission from the judge, in advance of trial, to amend the complaint to include a claim seeking punitive damages. The judge only grants this request if she concludes that there is a reasonable likelihood of proving oppressive, fraudulent, malicious, or outrageous conduct at trial. When making this determination, the opposing party will surely remind the judge that Idaho law disfavors punitive damages and that they “should be awarded in only the most unusual and compelling circumstances.” In sum, there are procedural and policy obstacles to even getting a claim for punitive damages before a jury.

If a party succeeds in presenting a claim of punitive damages to a jury, it is impossible to know how the jury will respond. Certainly, however, the defending party will have more incentive to settle a case rather than roll the dice with a jury. Punitive damages awards can be devastating. For example, in a very famous 1994 case known as “the McDonald’s coffee case,” an senior citizen woman sued McDonalds for burns she suffered after coffee spilled on her lap. The complaint sought $100,000 in compensatory damages and triple that in punitive damages, but the jury awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages (the judge later reduced the final verdict to $640.000). Two years after this case, the United States Supreme Court held in a separate case that excessively high punitive damages awards violate due process.

To further prevent excessive punitive damages verdicts, a 2003 Idaho law provides a cap on punitive damages: they cannot exceed the greater of $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages. Thus, although punitive damages in Idaho can still be severe, no Idaho court can allow a result like the McDonalds coffee case (at least the original jury verdict).

Certain punitive damages awards follow federal law rather than Idaho law, such as punitive damages in the employment discrimination cases, which have different guidelines and limits.

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