EDVA Tightens Reins on Punitive Damages

edva tightens
In an opinion released on July 14th, Judge James C. Cacheris used a motion to dismiss to carve back a plaintiff’s personal injury claim for punitive damages under Virginia state law.  In granting the motion to dismiss, the judge held that punitive damages are only available for “willful and wanton conduct,” not for negligent conduct.  The opinion takes a narrow view of what qualifies as “willful” conduct, and this approach could affect not only the personal injury bar, but also other civil litigators who seek punitive damages in business cases. The case, Gillespie v. Ashford Hospitality Prime, No. 1:15-cv-350, 2015 WL 4361262 (E.D. Va. July 14, 2015), arose from hard facts:  While visiting the Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, the plaintiff and her infant granddaughter were severely injured when a lighting fixture fell from a ballroom ceiling.  The plaintiff sued both the hotel owner and the construction general contractor who installed the light fixture.  In the plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit for negligence, she sought both compensatory and punitive damages.  The defendants then moved to dismiss the amended complaint. Judge Cacheris denied the motion as to the negligence claim for compensatory damages, but he granted the motion as to the punitive damages.  Quoting prior case law, Judge Cacheris said that “[u]nder Virginia law, to properly plead a claim for punitive damages, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to plausibly demonstrate such willful and wanton conduct.  Mere conclusory legal statements, without facts to support them will not suffice.” The judge went on conclude that the alleged negligent installation of the light fixture was not “willful” conduct that would justify punitive damages because the hotel owner did not intend to commit negligence:  “[The hotel owner’s] willful and conscious maintenance of an unreasonably safe hotel defies logic.  Similarly, [the general contractor’s] willful and malicious installation of an unreasonably safe light fixture would be just as bad for its business, such that it is too an illogical proposition.  In short, Plaintiff’s request for punitive damages is vaguely pleaded as a mere conclusion . . . .”.  Judge Cacheris then quoted from previous Fourth Circuit case law, stating that “[e]xemplary damages are allowable only where there is misconduct or malice, or such recklessness or negligence or as evinces a conscious disregard of the rights of others.” This opinion is notable because Judge Cacheris focuses on the question of intent, specifically whether the defendant consciously intended to harm the plaintiff, as opposed to whether the defendant intended a more general act (such as installing a light fixture).  This appears to be a tightening of the availability of punitive damages, not only in personal injury cases, but in commercial business torts.  The opinion is also noteworthy because Judge Cacheris was willing to take this action at the motion to dismiss stage, making conclusions that could be characterized as factual determinations in a future appeal. Regardless of any appeal, business litigators who seek punitive damages should be aware of this opinion and structure their complaints to adequately plead a conscious intent that satisfies the tightened standard.