The ever-looming threat of punitive damages has become a common, albeit over-utilized, scare tactic that plaintiff’s lawyers use to intimidate defendants or gain leverage in litigation. With television’s often dramatic portrayal of the legal profession, it is no wonder that the word “punitive” so readily strikes fear into the hearts of defendants. Defense counsel, therefore, are tasked with grounding their clients’ understandable fears in reality by explaining how rare it is for a judge or jury to actually award punitive damages.
To underscore this point, we analyzed cases decided over the past five years in the state and federal courts sitting in Westchester County to assess how often and under what circumstances punitive damages have been awarded. In Westchester, the results are quite telling: The number of cases in which punitive damages were awarded represented a minuscule percentage of the overall cases in which such damages were sought. The common denominator among these few cases where punitive damages were granted was the shocking level of moral turpitude underlying the conduct at issue.