Sharapata v. Town of Islip

Decision Date17 June 1982
Citation437 N.E.2d 1104,56 N.Y.2d 332,452 N.Y.S.2d 347
Parties, 437 N.E.2d 1104 Richard SHARAPATA, an Infant, by His Mother and Natural Guardian, Arlene Sharapata, et al., Appellants, v. TOWN OF ISLIP, Respondent.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Frank Mitchell Corso, Richard A. Engelberg, Jericho, Marti Green, Melville, and Mitchel Sommer, Jericho, for appellants.

John J. McLoone, Jr., Mineola, for respondent.

Louis N. Kash, Corp. Counsel, Rochester (Michael J. Looby, Rochester, of counsel), for City of Rochester, amicus curiae.

OPINION OF THE COURT

FUCHSBERG, Judge.

In a matter of first impression in this court, we hold today that the waiver of sovereign immunity effected by section 8 of the Court of Claims Act does not permit punitive damages to be assessed against the State or its political subdivisions.

The issue is presented in the context of a negligence action brought to recover the damages which flowed from injuries sustained by the infant plaintiff, Richard Sharapata, when, as it is alleged, defective slide equipment, on which the child had been invited to play in a public park maintained by the defendant, Town of Islip, turned out to be dangerously defective. Presumably on the basis of such information as was available to the child and his mother at the time their suit was started, the original complaint sought compensatory damages alone.

However, while the case was pending, plaintiffs apparently obtained access to communications between the town's safety officer and its liability insurance carrier, the substance of which, for present purposes, may be assumed, if it were proved, to have been sufficient to support a finding that the town had acted with reckless indifference to a known danger. 1 Be that as it may, it was on this premise that they moved for leave to amend their complaint to add a prayer for punitive damages.

Notwithstanding the town's contention that it was never the intention of the State, in enacting section 8, to consent to the bringing of punitive damage claims against it or, as in this case, against one of its local governments, Special Term granted the motion. However, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in an opinion in which Justice Titone made a comprehensive review of case law on the subject, reversed. In doing so, it noted that, during the more than half a century which had elapsed since section 8 (originally section 12-a) of the Court of Claims Act was enacted (L.1929, ch. 467, § 1), 2 the question, though raised from time to time, had evaded definite resolution (82 A.D.2d 350, 441 N.Y.S.2d 275). The Appellate Division then granted the plaintiffs leave to appeal to this court from the order entered on its determination. In so doing, it certified a question which, in its usual generalized form, asked us to decide whether the order was "properly made" (CPLR 5602, subd. par. 1), thus posing the question of law it had decided.

To answer the question we begin our analysis by noting important distinctions between compensatory and punitive damages. The former, including those recoverable for negligent conduct, are based on the fundamental purpose of damages, which is to have the wrongdoer make the victim whole. Put another way, these measure "fair and just compensation, commensurate with the loss or injury sustained from the wrongful act" (13 N.Y.Jur., Damages, § 9; see McCormick, Damages, §§ 20, 137; James, Damages in Accident Cases, 41 Cornell LQ 582).

Punitive or "exemplary" damages, sometimes known as "smart money", 3 and thus seemingly attuned to the criminal rather than the civil side of the law, are not intended to compensate the injured party but to punish the tort-feasor for his conduct and to deter him and others like him from similar action in the future (Restatement, Torts 2d, § 908; Prosser, Torts pp. 9-10). Not only do these differ in purpose and nature from compensatory damages, but they may only be awarded for exceptional misconduct which transgresses mere negligence, as when the wrongdoer has acted "maliciously, wantonly, or with a recklessness that betokens an improper motive or vindictiveness" (9 Encyclopedia New York Law, Damages, § 63) or has engaged in "outrageous or oppressive intentional misconduct" or with "reckless or wanton disregard of safety or rights" (Morris, Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases, 21 Ohio St.L.J. 216).

For a long time these distinctions were of no concern to the State as a potential defendant. For, at common law, as sovereign, it was not liable for injuries arising from the misconduct of an officer and employee, whatever its degree, and thus was not subject to the imposition of either compensatory or punitive damages, unless and to the extent that such liability expressly was assumed by constitutional or legislative enactment (Smith v. State of New York, 227 N.Y. 405, 125 N.E. 841; 18 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations § 53.24). 4 This general immunity came to an end with the adoption of section 8, which provides: "The state hereby waives its immunity from liability and action and hereby assumes liability and consents to have the same determined in accordance with the same rules of law as applied to actions in the supreme court against individuals or corporations".

Now, the formal history which accompanied this seemingly straightforward statute at the time of its adoption is sparse. Nevertheless, like all statutes, the legal and historical setting in which it came into existence need not be ignored (see Llewellyn, Common Law Tradition, pp. 371-377, esp. p. 372). Thus, not the least of the legal propositions of which we here cannot lose sight is the axiom that a statute in derogation of the sovereignty of a State must be strictly construed, waiver of immunity by inference being disfavored (Goldstein v. State of New York, 281 N.Y. 396, 24 N.E.2d 97; Smith v. State of New York, supra ; 81A C.J.S. States, § 299). 5 Section 8 is silent on punitive damages.

All the more is this pertinent because, long before section 8 came on the horizon, though statutes which made cities suable for their torts did not expressly exclude punitive damages, our courts were of the view that "are weighty reasons, whether we seek to designate them by that very general term, 'public policy', or otherwise, which oppose the application of the doctrine of punitive damages to municipal corporations, even in those cases where they might be justifiable against private corporations. The latter are largely created and administered for purposes of profit or for some other personal object. Those who become members of them do so voluntarily, and in the majority of instances in the hope of gain * * * The municipal corporation is different. It is not organized for any purpose of gain or profit, but it is a legal creation engaged in carrying on government and administering its details for the general good and as a matter of public necessity" (Costich v. City of Rochester, 68 App.Div. 623, 631, 73 N.Y.S. 835 [Hiscock, J.].

Moreover, though it, therefore, is hard to believe that any attempt to include punitive damages would not have induced lively legislative debate, contemporary State history preceding the formulation of section 8 gives no indication that the matter ever evoked any legislative interest. Instead, the "evil" the statute was designed to "cure" (see Llewellyn, Common Law Tradition, p. 374) appears to have been the one pointed up by Governor Alfred E. Smith in vetoing a large number of "private bills" presented to him at the conclusion of the 1928 legislative session. Such bills sought entry to the Court of Claims for individuals possessing claims which presumably had enough "moral" justification to have commended themselves to their legislative sponsors. Said the Governor, however: "I have been studying...

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    ...punitive damages in his § 1983 action, a remedy not available in a New York Court of Claims action. Sharapata v. Town of Islip, 56 N.Y.2d 332, 452 N.Y.S.2d 347, 437 N.E.2d 1104, 1107 (1982) (Court of Claims Act § 8 does not permit punitive damages to be assessed against the State or its pol......
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