What’s requested to get punitive damages in Arizona? The appeal case of Hart v. Biederbeck
In Hart v. Biederbeck, No. 1 CA-CV 18-0702 (Ariz. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2019), the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One considered the question of a plaintiff requesting punitive damages in connection with intentional tort claims arising from an altercation between the plaintiff and defendant. The court held that a plaintiff requesting punitive damages in connection with an intentional tort claim must establish evidence above and beyond that required to prove an intentional tort. Rather, the plaintiff must establish clear and convincing evidence of the defendant’s evil mind or willful and wanton conduct that disregards the plaintiff’s safety.
Base events: The plaintiff, Linda K. Hart, sued Daniel Biederbeck, in the Superior Court in Maricopa County alleging theories of assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. Her claims arose from a physical altercation involving the two parties. Hart made a request for both compensatory and punitive damages.
Trial Court: At trial Hart detailed the altercation, alleging Biederbeck “charged at her in a menacing manner,” “picked [her] up . . . and threw her against a security gate leading into the [parties’ former] residence.” As a result of the altercation she alleged she suffered “severe physical injury” and “severe emotional distress.” After hearing the evidence –which in the court’s own admission, questions both party’s veracity– the court entered a money judgment against Biederbeck for $15,000. However, the court did not grant Hart’s request for punitive damages.
Appeal: Hart appealed the judgment, requesting the Court of Appeals review the Trial Court’s ruling.
On appeal, the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling holding that a plaintiff seeking to recover punitive damages must present “clear and convincing evidence of the defendant’s evil mind” or willful and wanton conduct that disregards the plaintiff’s safety under Linthicum v. Nationwide Life Ins. Co., 150 Ariz. 326, 332 (1986).
Hart argued that she had met her burden of recovery for punitive damages by proving by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was liable on her intentional tort claims. The Court disagreed with this assertion saying that prevailing on these claims would only make her eligible for a punitive damage award.
Citing Linthicum, the Court noted that for Hart to successfully recover punitive damages she should have offered evidence above beyond that which was needed to prove her tort claims. The court noted that punitive damages are recoverable under extraordinary circumstances and are reserved for only “the most egregious of cases, where there is reprehensible conduct combined with an evil mind over and above that required for commission of a tort.” (Linthicum, 150 Ariz. at 332).
Further the court noted that courts considering a punitive damage award are granted discretionary power when considering these claims. They are not, as the plaintiff asserted, a mandatory function of the court. In this capacity the court stated she had only partially met her burden of proof for a claim of punitive damages, and therefore was not entitled to a finding by the trial court in this regard.