Punitive damages are damages on an increased scale that are awarded to a plaintiff over and above the amount that will strictly compensate them for their loss. A claim for punitive damages is appropriate where the wrong done to plaintiff was aggravated by circumstances of violence, oppression, malice, fraud, or wanton and wicked conduct on the part of the defendant. These damages are not only intended to provide solace to plaintiff, but also to make an example of a defendant and deter similar activity in the future.
The New Jersey Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.9, limits punitive damages to five times the amount of compensatory damages awarded or $350,000, whichever is greater, except in certain cases involving public policy and social concerns. Under the Act, plaintiff must specifically request punitive damages in the Complaint. The defendant may then request a bifurcated trial first to determine liability for compensatory damages and second, if necessary, to determine whether punitive damages should be awarded.
Under the Act, punitive damages may be award to plaintiff "only if plaintiff proves, by clear and convincing evidence, that the harm suffered was the result of defendant's acts or omissions, and such acts or omissions were actuated by actual malice or accompanied by a wanton and willful disregard of persons who foreseeably might be harmed by those acts or omissions."