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Doroszka v. Lavine

Supreme Court of Connecticut Third Judicial District, Bridgeport, April Term, 1930
Jun 13, 1930
150 A. 692 (Conn. 1930)

Summary

reviewing cases limiting punitive damages to amount of attorney's fees

Summary of this case from Smith v. Wade

Opinion

(NO. 29682), (NO. 30329).

In this State the purpose of awarding damages is not to punish the defendant for his offense but to compensate the plaintiff for his injuries, and so-called punitive or exemplary damages cannot exceed the amount of the plaintiff's expenses of litigation, less taxable costs. The right of this court, as of trial courts, in a proper case to order a new trial unless the plaintiff remits a part of the verdict is undoubted, and the desirable end sought to be served is the same. In the present actions for criminal conversation with the plaintiff's wife and for malicious prosecution, the verdict for the plaintiff for $20,000 in the former case and $26,025 in the latter, held excessive, and the setting aside of the verdict by the trial court affirmed, unless the plaintiff shall file a remittitur of $10,000 in the first case and $22,000 in the other.

Argued April 8th, 1930

Decided June 13th, 1930.

ACTIONS to recover damages for criminal conversation and for malicious prosecution, brought to the Superior Court in New Haven County and tried to a jury before Peasley, J.; verdicts for the plaintiff for $20,000 and $26,025, which the trial court, on the defendant's motion, set aside in each case and from these decisions the plaintiff appealed. Error in not ordering remittiturs.

The plaintiff, who was the only witness called, testified that he was a medical student and lived with his wife in an apartment in New Haven. One evening, on arriving home, he found the defendant in a compromising situation with his wife. The defendant offered him money to settle the matter but he refused and went out with Lavine to find a policeman, meeting defendant's chauffeur who hit him on the head with a hammer. Later, at the police station an officer, in the presence of Lavine, said to him, "If you say this is blackmail you can get out of town, but if you don't say this is blackmail Mr. Lavine will put you in jail for ten years." Upon his refusal to make this admission he was arrested and imprisoned from the evening of December 15th (1928) until noon of December 17th, when he was released on bail. Later he was tried in the City Court on charges of blackmail and conspiracy and acquitted. He has since declined to become reconciled with his wife although she solicited him to do so.

John Henry Sheehan, with whom, on the brief, was Harry L. Edlin, for the appellant (plaintiff). John M. Chapnick, for the appellee (defendant).


The trial court, on motion, set each verdict aside. Error in so doing is the only assignment on these appeals. It suffices to say, without recital of details thereof, that the evidence, although consisting only of the testimony of the plaintiff, was ample to warrant a verdict in his favor in each case. It is manifest, however, that both verdicts were grossly excessive in the amount of damages awarded, and the trial court was correct in setting them aside on that ground. Few verdicts approaching such amounts have been rendered, in this jurisdiction, in actions of tort, however grievous and extensive the injuries involved. The awards here vastly exceed those hitherto made in Connecticut cases of this kind. Seidler v. Burns, 84 Conn. 111, 79 A. 53, 86 Conn. 249, 85 A. 369; McGann v. Allen, 105 Conn. 177, 134 A. 810; Zitkov v. Zaleski, 102 Conn. 439, 128 A. 779; Shea v. Berry, 93 Conn. 475, 106 A. 761; Verdi v. Donahue, 91 Conn. 448, 99 A. 1041; Hammond v. Rowley, 86 Conn. 6, 84 A. 94; Gray v. Fanning, 73 Conn. 115, 46 A. 831; Valentine v. Pollak, 95 Conn. 556, 111 A. 869; Sheffield v. Beckwith, 90 Conn. 93, 96 A. 316; Hart v. Knapp, 76 Conn. 135, 55 A. 1021; Noxon v. Remington, 78 Conn. 296, 61 A. 963. Comparison of the facts in these cases and the awards therein with those in the present instance, with due consideration of recent developments including the diminished purchasing power of money, discloses no logical or legitimate justification for verdicts for the amounts awarded in the present cases.

Extending our investigation to other jurisdictions, we find few cases in which verdicts of such amount have been sustained and that notwithstanding prevalence of the common-law doctrine permitting the award of punitive damages, in amount practically at the discretion of the jury, while in this State the purpose is not to punish the defendant for his offense but to compensate the plaintiff for his injuries, and so-called punitive or exemplary damages cannot exceed the amount of the plaintiff's expenses of litigation, less taxable costs. ( Hassett v. Carroll, 85 Conn. 23, 38, 81 A. 1013; Hanna v. Sweeney, 78 Conn. 492, 494, 62 A. 785; Maisenbacker v. Society Concordia, 71 Conn. 369, 378, 42 A. 67.) See cases collected, 38 Corpus Juris, p. 450, Malicious Prosecution, § 103, notes 83, 84; 30 Corpus Juris, p. 1166, Husband and Wife (Criminal Conversation) § 1068, notes 65, 66; Hargraves v. Ballou, 47 R. I. 186, 131 A. 643.

The trial court, in setting aside the verdicts, expressed the opinion that the jury were influenced to return verdicts of such size by their reaction to the plaintiff's story of the defendant's treatment of him immediately following the discovery of defendant's relations with the plaintiff's wife. Whether this is the true explanation and the jury, although presumably correctly instructed as to the assessment of damages, since the charge is not complained of, yielded to an inclination to punish the defendant in addition to compensating the plaintiff for the damages to which he had proven that he was fairly entitled, is not of controlling importance. It is obvious that sympathy, prejudice or other inadmissible considerations or incentives led them to disregard or transgress the rule that should govern the ascertainment of damages, with unwarranted and harmful results which the court was clearly right in setting aside. Seidler v. Burns, supra, p. 116; Hassett v. Carroll, supra, p. 38; Haight v. Hoyt, 50 Conn., 583.

We think that the trial court should have exercised the discretion vested in it to condition its action, and the consequent retrials, upon plaintiff's refusal to accept a remittitur reducing each verdict to such sum as, in its judgment, would constitute just compensatory damages in each case. "The practice of thus granting a new trial nisi, in certain cases where the damages awarded by the verdict are clearly excessive, is a beneficial one to the parties, and is in no sense a usurpation of the functions of the jury. Such an order frequently saves the parties the expense of a second trial. The plaintiff is not compelled to remit the sum suggested by the trial court, but may elect either to submit to a new trial, or to seek, by an appeal to this court . . . to have the order of new trial reversed and judgment rendered for the full amount of the verdict." Noxon v. Remington, 78 Conn. 296, 300, 61 A. 963. This course has been adopted frequently and the practical desirability thereof in all proper cases is increasingly emphasized by the growth in volume of litigation and consequent congestion in the courts.

The remaining question is whether this court should, itself, order acceptance of a remittitur in an amount fixed by us, as an alternative of a new trial in these cases. As early as Baldwin v. Porter, 12 Conn. 473, and frequently since, we have ordered a new trial unless the plaintiff would remit a part of the verdict. Our right to do so in a proper case is undoubted and the desirable end sought to be served is the same as that above suggested concerning similar action by trial courts. Noxon v. Remington, supra. We think that the circumstances of the present cases warrant the exercise of this right, and the conditioning of new trials upon the refusal of the plaintiff to accede to a reduction of the verdicts to such amounts as we regard as constituting just compensatory damages.

The trial court was not in error in setting aside the verdicts but was in error in not doing so conditionally.


Summaries of

Doroszka v. Lavine

Supreme Court of Connecticut Third Judicial District, Bridgeport, April Term, 1930
Jun 13, 1930
150 A. 692 (Conn. 1930)

reviewing cases limiting punitive damages to amount of attorney's fees

Summary of this case from Smith v. Wade
Case details for

Doroszka v. Lavine

Case Details

Full title:VINCENT DOROSZKA vs. I. HARRY LAVINE. VINCENT DOROSZKA vs. I. HARRY LAVINE

Court:Supreme Court of Connecticut Third Judicial District, Bridgeport, April Term, 1930

Date published: Jun 13, 1930

Citations

150 A. 692 (Conn. 1930)
150 A. 692

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