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Johnson v. Ryder Truck Rentals Inc.

Decided: January 6, 1993.

DENNIS JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RYDER TRUCK RENTALS, INC., DEFENDANT



Menza, J.s.c.

Menza

The defendant moves in limine to dismiss the plaintiff's claim for punitive damages.*fn1

The novel question presented is whether a jury may award punitive damages based solely on a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42.

The plaintiff, a former employee of the defendant corporation, brought this action for wrongful discharge, alleging race and age discrimination in violation of the NJLAD, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The defendant contends that the plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages merely by offering evidence that the defendant violated the NJLAD, but that it also must set forth other evidence which demonstrates that the violation was the result of actual malice and reckless indifference to the plaintiff's rights. The defendant argues that, because the plaintiff has no such proofs, the court must dismiss his claim for punitive damages. The plaintiff disagrees, arguing that he need only prove that he was a victim of discrimination and that no other proofs are required to warrant the imposition of punitive damages.

It is well settled law in New Jersey that punitive damages may be awarded under the NJLAD. In Jackson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 223 N.J. Super. 467, 538 A.2d 1310 (App.Div.1988), an employee brought an action for wrongful discharge against his employer alleging that he was terminated because of race in violation of the NJLAD. The court held that the defendant's conduct was egregious and that the issue of punitive damages should have been presented to the jury:

This suit was premised on wrongful discharge under the state and federal Constitutions as well as the Law Against Discrimination, and punitive damages may be awarded where appropriate for improper discharge in violation of the constitution. They may also be awarded for improperly motivated policy reasons, . . . or for violation of an individual's federal civil rights . . ."

[ Id. at 482, 538 A.2d 1310 (citations omitted).]

However, while the Jackson court concluded that there was sufficient evidence in the record for the issue of punitive damages to be presented to the jury, the court did not decide the issue of whether punitive damages are available in all NJLAD cases.*fn2

Similarly, the Third Circuit has held that punitive damages may be awarded under the NJLAD in appropriate cases. In Levinson v. Prentice-Hall Inc., 868 F. 2d 558 (3d Cir.1989), the plaintiff brought an action alleging discrimination on the basis of handicap and was awarded compensatory and punitive damages by the jury. The defendant moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and in the alternative, for a new trial, contending that New Jersey law did not allow an award of punitive damages. The court concluded that punitive damages were allowed under the NJLAD and denied the motion. In doing so, it stated:

[F]undamental to our Conclusion that punitive damages are allowable under the Law is the characterization by the Supreme Court of New Jersey of acts violating the Law, and its rulings as to when, generally, punitive damages may be awarded. In Andersen v. Exxon Co., 89 N.J. 483, 491, 446 A.2d 486, 490 (1982), on an appeal by an employer from an administrative order issued in a proceeding under the Law Against Discrimination involving discrimination against an employee by reason of physical handicap, the court said that "[e]mployment discrimination due to sex, race or any other invidious classification is peculiarly repugnant in a society that prides itself in judging each individual by his or her merits" and "[o]ur Court has repeatedly emphasized the strong public policy of New Jersey against employment discrimination." Thus, we feel certain that the court would in some cases find that employment discrimination was wantonly reckless or malicious conduct reflecting intentional wrongdoing in the sense of an evil-minded act or a disregard of the rights of another, the type of conduct which it has held may justify an award of punitive damages.

[ Id. at 562.]

No New Jersey court has addressed the precise issue presented in this case, which is whether a violation of the NJLAD constitutes willful and ...


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