TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Southwestern Law School

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No Punitive Damages for NY Smokers

In a decision last week, the New York Appellate Division (First Dept.) held that individual punitive damages claims by NY smokers are barred by the doctrine of res judicata.   The court reasoned that the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco companies extinguished claims for punitive damages:

[A] claim by a private attorney general to vindicate what is an essentially public interest in imposing a punitive sanction cannot lie where, as here, that interest has been previously and appropriately represented by the State Attorney General in an action addressed, on behalf of all of the people of the State, including plaintiffs and the decedent, to the identical misconduct.

The court rejected the idea that punitive damages serve any private purposes: 

[P]unitive damages claims are quintessentially and exclusively public in their ultimate orientation and purpose, and in that respect peculiarly appropriate for prosecution by the Attorney General in parens patriae. Such claims do not, even when asserted in the context of a personal injury action, essentially relate to individual injury. They are allowed, "not to compensate the injured party but rather to punish the tortfeasor and to deter th[e] wrongdoer and others similarly situated from indulging in the same conduct in the future". Indeed, the courts of this State have been so adamant that punitive damages are "a social exemplary remedy,' [and] not a private compensatory remedy," that the imposition of such damages for private purposes has been held to violate public policy.

A claim for punitive damages may, of course, be rooted in personal injury, but for such a claim to succeed the injury must be shown to be emblematic of much more than individually sustained wrong. It must be shown to reflect pervasive and grave misconduct affecting the public generally, to, in a sense, merge with a serious public grievance, and thus merit punitive, indeed quasi-criminal sanction by the State. As Chief Judge Breitel observed in Garrity, punitive damages are in their true aspect a prerogative reserved to the State for the accomplishment of social purposes, and it is thus fitting that those who pursue such damages in the context of private actions should be viewed as acting in the State's behalf, as "private attorneys general." (internal citations omitted).

(My thanks to Meredith Miller for alerting me to the opinion). 


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