Why It's So Hard to Get Punitive Damages in New York
In the first conversation that I have with prospective clients, particularly within the realm of a potential breach of fiduciary duty case (where they feel betrated by a confidant, and are terribly and personally offended from the events that unfolded), I am often asked whether the client can recover not only the damages that they actually incurred, but whether the court may also compel the defendant to pay punitive damages because the defendant's conduct was "obviously wrong," and "immoral."
As a general rule, the instances where a plaintiff can recover punitive damages - and actually have it stand up on appeal - are rare indeed. And the reason for this should be readily understandable from the Court of Appeals' decisions in Dupree v. Giugliano, 20 N.Y.3d 921, 958 N.Y.S.2d 312 (Nov. 29, 2012), citing and quoting from its earlier (1993) Prozeralik decision wherein it said that for an award of punitive damages there must be
"[A]ggravation or outrage, such as spite or “malice,” or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that the conduct may be called wilful or wanton."
As you can certainly surmise, this standard is not easily met, because even if the Court or jury finds that the defendant acted deliberately, the claim for punitive damages will still fail unless the defendant's conduct rises to the level of sparking "outrage."
Indeed, in the Court of Appeals' recent holding in Marinaccio v. Town of Clarence, 20 N.Y.3d 506, .... N.Y.S.2d .... (March 21, 2013), the Court overturned a lower court's award of punitive damages precisely because the plaintiff failed to meet this daunting evidentiary standard, as the Court held that the mere fact that the defendants had acted deliberately was insufficient to support a punitive damages award, as there wasn't evidence that the defendants acted with “malice or gross indifference.”