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Leimgruber v. Claridge Associates

Decided: June 14, 1977.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Hughes and Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber and Handler. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Hughes, C.J.


We certified, 71 N.J. 499 (1976), a judgment of the Appellate Division, whose unpublished opinion had reflected its difference of view with the trial court's decision on a question involving punitive damages.

The relatively simple issue here stems from the mutilation by the defendant-respondent Claridge Associates, Ltd. (Claridge) of some 11 trees on the property of its adjoining land owners, Mr. and Mrs. Willy Leimgruber (plaintiffs). Claridge's property was a large, elevated tract on which it was constructing, as observed by the trial court, a $20 million apartment complex. Plaintiffs owned and lived on a residential property about an acre in dimension, where they enjoyed to the rear of their home a wooded area (adjoining the Claridge property) containing the 11 trees in question. Claridge wished to build a heliport on its property requiring the partial cutting (topping) of some of the trees on its property, for the accommodation of a "flight path" required by aeronautical safety regulations, for the landing and departure of helicopters. Despite the fact that the Leimgruber property line was plainly marked, Claridge's workmen, at the direction of their foreman, intruded on plaintiffs' property and cut (unnecessarily as later appeared) about 30 feet in length off the tops of the plaintiffs' 11 trees mentioned. Charging that such trespass and damage were intentional and malicious, as well as in willful and wanton disregard of their rights, plaintiffs sought equitable relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Judge Kimmelman, sitting without jury, determined that Claridge had evinced a wanton and willful disregard for plaintiffs' property rights. He therefore awarded plaintiffs $1,700 in compensatory damages and $16,500, or $1,500 for each of the 11 trees damaged, by way of punitive damages. Claridge appealed and the Appellate Division reduced the punitive damages to $5,000 on the basis of its finding that the trial court's award was "clearly excessive." We reverse and reinstate the trial court's judgment.

The Appellate Division found no fault*fn1 with the factual base upon which the trial court rested its decision that punitive damages should be awarded against defendant for what was determined to have been its wanton and reckless disregard of plaintiffs' rights. It saw no reason to disagree with the findings

that defendant's workmen "went on plaintiffs' property and topped eleven trees"; that compensatory damages amounted to a rounded-off figure of $1,700 consisting of damage to the trees, the sum needed for pruning and fertilizing, and the cost of clearing out several dead trees"; that "there was no actual malice involved in the cutting of these trees"; that plaintiffs' trees were "cut thirty feet below" the required "flight angle" for "flight paths for heliports"; that defendant's workmen treated the work with a "cavalier" attitude; that the rear boundary line of plaintiffs' property could have and should have been ascertained by defendant; that the topping of the trees "to the degree thirty feet below the true flight angle * * * constituted a blatant act"; and that the action of defendant's employees "was very clearly a wanton and reckless disregard of the rights of property owners."

Punitive or exemplary damages are sums awarded apart from compensatory damages and are assessed when the wrongdoer's conduct is especially egregious. They are awarded upon a theory of punishment to the offender for aggravated misconduct and to deter such conduct in the future. Fisher v. Volz, 496 F.2d 333, 347 (3d Cir. 1974); DiGiovanni v. Pessel, 55 N.J. 188, 190 (1970); Berg v. Reaction Motors Div., 37 N.J. 396, 412-13 (1962); Trainer v. Wolff, 58 N.J.L. 381, 382 (E. & A. 1895); Belinski v. Goodman, 139 N.J. Super. 351, 359 (App. Div. 1976); Cabakov v. Thatcher, 37 N.J. Super. 249, 259 (App. Div. 1955); Hulbert v. Arnold, 83 N.J.L. 114, 117 (Sup. Ct. 1912);

Dobbs, Remedies § 3.9, at 205 (1973); McCormick, Damages § 77 (1935); Prosser, Torts § 2, at 9 (4th ed. 1971); Restatement (Second) of torts § 908(1), Comment a (Tent. Draft No. 19, 1973). There is no doubt that here the Chancery judge rightly awarded punitive damages for the willful and wanton misconduct he found on the part of Claridge. Berg v. Reaction Motors Div., supra.

The sole issue before us, then, is the soundness of the appellate reduction of the $16,500 punitive damage award to $5,000. That action was not based, so far as we can discern, on any contrary determination of supposedly mistaken fact or error in law, or on the finding of new facts through the exercise of original jurisdiction under the rule, R. 2:10-5, which is cited in support of its decision. Nor does the opinion of the Appellate Division announce as such any sense of shock, outrage, manifest injustice or abuse of trial court discretion. The only stated justification for the reduction is somewhat uninformative except as it suggests the supposed need for a definite relationship in amount between punitive and compensatory damages, a proposition unsupported, at least with any precision, by any decision in this jurisdiction. The Appellate Division applied this "ratio" rule as follows:

While punitive damages were properly assessable, the amount awarded was, in the totality of the circumstances, clearly excessive, having no reasonable relation whatever to the actual damage to the topped trees. * * *

From our review of the record we are satisfied that a punitive damage award in excess of $5,000, or approximately three times the award of compensatory ...

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