Summer 2021

Malicious Defendants Beware: Stipulating to Liability Does Not Prevent the Imposition of Punitive Damages

Punishment of a defendant is not often a consideration for jurors in civil litigation, though it may become more commonplace following the District of Columbia Court of Appeals holdings in Edwards v. Safeway, Inc., 216 A.3d 17 (D.C. 2019).

Generally, in order to obtain punitive damages in tort cases, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant committed a tortious act (i.e., negligence, assault, battery), and that act must be accompanied by conduct and a state of mind evincing malice or its equivalent. Jonathan Woodner Co. v. Breeden, 665 A.2d 929, 937-38 (D.C.1995). While the tortious conduct only requires a finding by a preponderance of the evidence, The District of Columbia Court of Appeals requires that punitive damages be established by clear and convincing evidence. The rationale for the heightened standard is that punitive damages are penal in nature, and therefore “a more exacting standard” (as many other jurisdictions, including Maryland, impose) should be required.

Much more recently, in Edwards, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that defendants cannot remove the issue of punitive damages from the jury by simply stipulating to liability. The plaintiff in that case, Ms. Edwards, alleged that she was falsely accused of shoplifting leading to her false imprisonment, assault, and defendants’ conversion of Ms. Edwards’ rightful possessions. She sought punitive damages for the actions of the employees of the defendant Safeway, Inc. The trial court precluded Ms. Edwards from presenting evidence of punitive damages, including a surveillance video of the alleged incident, because the defendant had admitted liability and because the manner of the conversion did not matter relating to the amount of damages in the case. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals disagreed, finding an abuse of discretion, and reversed and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Most notably, the Edwards Court concluded that Safeway’s admission of liability was immaterial to the issue of punitive damages, because a plaintiff’s entitlement to punitive damages is a separate question from that of liability. Though an admission of liability may result in the exclusion of extraneous factual evidence, it does not preclude a plaintiff from showing how the incident happened, if such evidence is material and relevant to the question of punitive damages. The Court further concluded that the video showing the incident or any other evidence regarding the circumstances of Ms. Edwards’s stop at the store, such as her testimony, would have been unquestionably relevant to the issue of whether Ms. Edwards may have a claim for punitive damages that should have been sent to the jury for consideration.

The Edwards Court noted that the evidence relating to punitive damages, as well as the Standardized Civil Jury Instructions for the District of Columbia regarding punitive damages, should have been presented to the jury. The instruction provides that the jury may award punitive damages only if the plaintiff has proved with clear and convincing evidence: (1) that the defendant acted with evil motive, actual malice, deliberate violence or oppression, with intent to injure, or in willful disregard for the rights of the plaintiff; and (2) that the defendant’s conduct itself was outrageous, grossly fraudulent, or reckless toward the safety of the plaintiff.

The court did not address the issue of unfair prejudice that may result to defendants that have stipulated to liability in such cases where punitive damages are sought. While a plaintiff is entitled to make their case for punitive damages, defendants will push the courts to strike a delicate balance in weighing the substantive value of possible evidence in support of punitive damages, while not allowing evidence that will prejudice the defendants in the eyes of the jury. Evidence of malicious conduct may be relevant to the issue of punitive damages, but it should not prejudice the defendant to the point that the jury cannot fairly reach a conclusion as it relates to compensatory damages or fairly evaluate other portions of plaintiffs’ claims. Plaintiffs may receive additional and unreasonable sympathy from the jurors, which could lead to judgments based on emotion instead of the law. Still, morality may deem that if a defendant truly behaved in such a manner that is evil, malicious, or deliberately violent, then that defendant cannot claim prejudice. Needless to say, the District of Columbia frowns upon evil, malicious, and intentionally violent conduct, and now conceding liability can no longer be used as a shield to avoid punishment.

For more information contact Stephen J. Marshall.