2012 Wisconsin Statutes & Annotations
895. Damages, liability, and miscellaneous provisions regarding actions in courts.
895.043 Punitive damages.
895.043 Punitive damages.
(1) Definitions. In this section:
(a) "Defendant" means the party against whom punitive damages are sought.
(b) "Double damages" means those court awards made under a statute providing for twice, 2 times or double the amount of damages suffered by the injured party.
(c) "Plaintiff" means the party seeking to recover punitive damages.
(d) "Treble damages" means those court awards made under a statute providing for 3 times or treble the amount of damages suffered by the injured party.
(2) Scope. This section does not apply to awards of double damages or treble damages, or to the award of exemplary damages under ss. 46.90 (9) (a) and (b), 51.30 (9), 51.61 (7), 55.043 (9m) (a) and (b), 103.96 (2), 134.93 (5), 146.84 (1) (b) and (bm), 153.76, 252.14 (4), 252.15 (8) (a), 610.70 (7) (b), 943.245 (2) and (3) and 943.51 (2) and (3).
(3) Standard of conduct. The plaintiff may receive punitive damages if evidence is submitted showing that the defendant acted maliciously toward the plaintiff or in an intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.
(4) Procedure. If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case for the allowance of punitive damages:
(a) The plaintiff may introduce evidence of the wealth of a defendant; and
(b) The judge shall submit to the jury a special verdict as to punitive damages or, if the case is tried to the court, the judge shall issue a special verdict as to punitive damages.
(5) Application of joint and several liability. The rule of joint and several liability does not apply to punitive damages.
(6) Limitation on damages. Punitive damages received by the plaintiff may not exceed twice the amount of any compensatory damages recovered by the plaintiff or $200,000, whichever is greater. This subsection does not apply to a plaintiff seeking punitive damages from a defendant whose actions under sub. (3) included the operation of a vehicle, including a motor vehicle as defined under s. 340.01 (35), a snowmobile as defined under s. 340.01 (58a), an all-terrain vehicle as defined under s. 340.01 (2g), a utility terrain vehicle as defined under s. 23.33 (1) (ng), and a boat as defined under s. 30.50 (2), while under the influence of an intoxicant to a degree that rendered the defendant incapable of safe operation of the vehicle. In this subsection, "intoxicant" has the meaning given in s. 30.50 (4e).
History: 1995 a. 17; 1997 a. 71; 1999 a. 79; 2005 a. 155 s. 71; Stats. 2005 s. 895.043; 2005 a. 388 s. 216; 2009 a. 274; 2011 a. 2, 208; s. 35.17 correction in (6).
Punitive damages may be awarded in products liability cases. Judicial controls over punitive damage awards are established. Wangen v. Ford Motor Co. 97 Wis. 2d 260, 294 N.W.2d 437 (1980).
Guidelines for submission of punitive damages issues to the jury in a products liability case are discussed. Walter v. Cessna Aircraft Co. 121 Wis. 2d 221, 358 N.W.2d 816 (Ct. App. 1984).
In awarding punitive damages, the factors to be considered are: 1) the grievousness of the wrongdoer's acts; 2) the degree of malicious intent; 3) the potential damage that might have been caused by the acts; and 4) the defendant's ability to pay. An award is excessive if it inflicts a punishment or burden that is disproportionate to the wrongdoing. That a judge provided a means for the defendant to avoid paying the punitive damages awarded did not render the award invalid. Gianoli v. Pfleiderer, 209 Wis. 2d 509, 563 N.W.2d 562 (Ct. App. 1997), 95-2867.
Nominal damages may support a punitive damage award in an action for intentional trespass. A grossly excessive punishment violates due process. Whether punitive damages violate due process depends on: 1) the reprehensibility of the conduct; 2) the disparity between the harm suffered and the punitive damages awarded; and 3) the difference between the award and other civil or criminal penalties authorized or imposed. Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, 209 Wis. 2d 605, 563 N.W.2d 154 (1997), 95-1028.
A circuit court entering default judgment on a punitive damages claim must make inquiry beyond the complaint to determine the merits of the claim and the amount to be awarded. Apex Electronics Corp. v. Gee, 217 Wis. 2d 378, 571 N.W.2d 23 (1998), 97-0353.
The requirement under sub. (3) that the defendant act "in an intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff" necessitates that the defendant act with a purpose to disregard the plaintiff's rights or be aware that his or her conduct is substantially certain to result in the plaintiff's rights being disregarded. The act or course of conduct must be deliberate and must actually disregard the rights of the plaintiff, whether it be a right to safety, health or life, a property right, or some other right. There is no requirement of intent to injure or cause harm. Wischer v. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, Inc. 2005 WI 26, 279 Wis. 2d 6, 694 N.W.2d 320, 01-0724.
A defendant's conduct giving rise to punitive damages need not be directed at the specific plaintiff seeking punitive damages in order to recover under the statute. Wischer v. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, Inc. 2005 WI 26, 279 Wis. 2d 6, 694 N.W.2d 320, 01-0724.
Sub. (3) requires evidence of either malicious conduct or intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff, not both. Henrikson v. Strapon, 2008 WI App 145, 314 Wis. 2d 225, 758 N.W.2d 205, 07-2621.
Sub. (3) sets the bar for the kind of evidence required to support a punitive damage award and does not expand the category of cases where punitive damages may be awarded. In cases in which punitive damages are barred in the first instance, the standard for conduct under sub. (3) does not come into play. Groshek v. Trewin, 2010 WI 51, 325 Wis. 2d 250, 784 N.W.2d 163, 08-0787.
The due process clause does not permit a jury to base an award of punitive damages in part upon its desire to punish the defendant for harming persons who are not before the court. However, evidence of actual harm to nonparties can help to show that the conduct that harmed the plaintiff also posed a substantial risk to the general public, and so was particularly reprehensible. The due process clause requires state courts to provide assurance that juries are seeking simply to determine reprehensibility and not also to punish for harm caused to strangers. Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 784 U.S. 631, 127 S. Ct. 1057, 166 L. Ed. 2d 940 (2007).
The availability of punitive damages depends on the character of the particular conduct committed rather than on the theory of liability propounded by the plaintiff. The recovery of punitive damages requires that something must be shown over and above the mere breach of duty for which compensatory damages can be given. Unified Catholic Schools of Beaver Dam Education Association v. Universal Card Services Corp. 34 F. Supp. 2d 714, (1999).
The Future of Punitive Damages. SPECIAL ISSUE: 1998 WLR No. 1.
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