Punitive Damages Award Vacated – Trial Court Found Not to Have Weighed Factors

When a trial court awards punitive damages, it must engage in sufficient analysis on the relevant factors, and its “order must clearly demonstrate how each factor impacted the court’s decision.”

In Cox v. Cox, No. E2016-01097-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 29, 2017), plaintiff husband filed suit against defendant wife for both a divorce and an assault tort claim. Prior to the lawsuit, wife had “entered the marital residence and stabbed husband twice in the neck.” Wife stipulated to the divorce and assault, so the only issue was damages.
In the trial court, husband testified that “as a result of his injuries, he missed one month of work and lost approximately $20,000 in income,” but later admitted that “he had never reported $20,000 in business income in previous years.” He also testified that since the stabbing, he had been forced to reduce his work hours as a mechanic. Husband did not submit any medical bills or expert testimony during the proof portion of the case, but the court allowed him to submit invoices from his doctor after the hearing. The trial court ultimately awarded husband $15,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages on his tort claim.

On appeal, the compensatory damages were upheld, but the punitive damages were vacated. Regarding the compensatory damages, the Court held that husband’s “proof of medical expenses was insufficient.” It nonetheless affirmed the $15,000 award, stating:

Husband was unable to quantify the amount of his lost income, but he was adamant that his recurring infection negatively impacted his health and his ability to work. Although husband may have only provided scant proof of damages, we cannot say that the evidence preponderates against the court’s award of compensatory damages.

(internal citation omitted).

When analyzing the punitive damage award, the Court noted the process that Tennessee courts must follow when making such an award. The Court stated that “[i]f the trial court determines that the defendant is liable for punitive damages, it must then determine the amount of punitive damages to award in light of the factors outlined by our supreme court,” referred to as the Hodges factors. (internal citation omitted). Here, although it was “undisputed that wife acted with the requisite intent to justify an award of punitive damages,” the trial court’s “order failed to address any of the Hodges factors” or “demonstrate how each factor impacted the court’s decision.” The award was therefore vacated, and the case was remanded “for a reassessment of punitive damages in light of the Hodges factors.” (internal citation omitted).  Curiously, the Court did not cite to Tenn. Code Ann. Section 29-39-104, which arguably supplants the Hodges decision.  However, the factors articulated in that statute are almost identical to those set forth in Hodges and thus this falls within the “no harm, no foul” rule.

The lesson here is simple—if you, as a plaintiff, win a punitive damages award, do what you can to ensure that the trial court’s order contains the findings necessary to sustain the award on appeal.