ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Reminder that punitive damagers are not typically available for breach of contract claims

I don't blog a lot about contracts damages, but a recent opinion out of New York, St. Stephen Community A.M.E. Church v. 2131 8th Avenue LLC, 650558/11, had a discussion of the damages which it would allow the plaintiff to try to prove at trial. Specifically, the defendant was complaining about the plaintiff's seeking of lost income and punitive damages. The court found that the lost income damages would be permitted to survive to give the plaintiff an opportunity to prove them at trial with sufficient certainty. The plaintiff claimed that its board members would be able to testify at trial about the loss of revenue it suffered, and so the court did not think these were too speculative not to allow such testimony.

The plaintiff's punitive damages claim was a different story, however. The plaintiff argued that punitive damages were appropriate because a breach of fiduciary duty was at stake, but the court found that that was so only when the breach was "an outrageous public wrong," and there was nothing in this case that involved the "moral culpability" the court needed to award punitive damages. Likewise, punitive damages are normally recoverable from a breach of contract action only when there is a public right at issue or when an independent tort justifies such an award. Neither was relevant here, and so the court precluded the plaintiff from recovering punitive damages in connection with its breach of contract claims.

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