Intentional Torts Do Not Always Justify Punitive Damages
February 1, 2018 By Matthew J. Gannett
It has long been the law in Maryland that in order to justify an award of punitive damages in a non-intentional tort, a Plaintiff must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the Defendant acted with actual malice, which is defined as “evil motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud.” For years, many thought that proving an intentional tort would satisfy the actual malice standard. However, the Maryland Court of Appeals, in the case of Beall v. Halloway-Johnson, 446 Md. 48, 130 A.3d 407 (2016), clarified that even in intentional torts, Plaintiffs must prove “actual malice” by clear and convincing evidence, and that “actual malice” may not be implied merely from the proof necessary to allege the intentional tort of battery.
In Beall, Plaintiff brought a wrongful death claim against a Baltimore City police officer alleging a number of torts, including battery, arising from a high-speed chase that ended in Defendant using his cruiser to strike decedent’s motorcycle. The Circuit Court found that Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to allow Plaintiff’s claims for battery and for punitive damages to proceed to the jury. The Court of Special Appeals found that there was sufficient evidence to allow Plaintiff’s battery claim to proceed to the jury. The Court of Special Appeals also noted that the battery claim could justify punitive damages under a theory of “malice implicit,” meaning actual malice is implied in the element of battery. The Court of Appeals upheld the court’s finding that there was sufficient evidence to allow a claim for battery to proceed to the jury, but held that there was not sufficient evidence to allow the jury to consider an award of punitive damages.
The Court provided two rationales for its holding. First, the Court explained that proving a battery does not require proving actual malice. To prove a battery, a Plaintiff must show a general intent to unlawfully invade another’s physical wellbeing through a harmful or offensive contact. Battery does not require intent to bring about a certain harm. Proof of actual malice requires more than a general intent. Actual malice requires proof of a specific intent to injure the Plaintiff. Thus, proving intent necessary to establish a battery does not necessarily prove intent necessary to justify punitive damages. Second, the Court explained that the standard of proof to present a claim for punitive damages is greater than the burden of proof to establish an intentional tort. To prove battery, Plaintiff must prove intent by a preponderance of the evidence. However, to present a claim for punitive damages, Plaintiff must produce clear and convincing evidence of actual malice. Thus, a Plaintiff presenting evidence necessary to prove battery does not necessarily satisfy the Plaintiff’s heightened burden to present evidence necessary to have the question of punitive damages presented to the jury.
Thus, in all cases in Maryland, including those involving intentional torts, the Plaintiff’s burden of proving entitlement to punitive damages is not satisfied merely by presenting evidence necessary to prove the intentional tort. Rather, Plaintiff must present clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, including that the Defendant acted with evil motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud.