Why intent is the basis behind compensatory vs. punitive damages

Accidents frequently take place in guestroom bathrooms, making them an important area of focus for hotels. Photo credit: Getty Images/jaboo2foto (Hotel bathrooms are fraught with accidents, but depending on how a hotel is treated prior to a guest's stay can be a factor in future litigation.)

Hotel bathrooms are fraught with accidents. Slips and falls are legion. (I know you all employ slip-resistant devices in your tubs.) A guest at an Illinois Four Seasons hotel was injured by a sliding glass door in the bathroom. When she slid the door open, the handle collided with the wall, causing the glass to explode and shatter, throwing her body against the wall and onto the floor.

She of course sued.

The hotel had undergone renovations shortly before her stay. The upgrades included installation of the doors. Apparently, the work had some flaws. The hotel engineer told the plaintiff that a “bunch” of the sliding glass doors had exploded at the hotel. Evidence established that the one in plaintiff’s room had burst twice, and the room was on a “do-not-sell” list.

The evidence of negligence must have been indisputable because the hotel admitted liability. A jury trial was held to determine the amount of compensatory damages, that is, the money necessary to reimburse plaintiff for the costs associated with her injuries. That figure was $20,000.

Plaintiff also sought punitive damages, an amount of money occasionally awarded plaintiffs over and above the amount needed to compensate, the purpose of which is to punish the defendant. Punitive damages are imposed only in cases where defendant’s wrongful conduct was not only careless, but also intentional or wanton. An award to a plaintiff for punitive damages can be substantial, and thus quite costly to the defendant.

Two factors courts review when determining whether punitive damages should be granted are: 1) the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; and 2) what amount of money is necessary to have a deterrent effect on defendant considering the defendant’s financial circumstance.

The court found the evidence insufficient to prove Four Seasons acted intentionally or wantonly and denied plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. She appealed, and the appellate court reversed, resulting in a second trial involving just the issue of punitive damages. The jury declined to award them and yet another judge affirmed. Upshot: Plaintiff collected compensatory damages only.

An interesting side issue: Following the explosion in plaintiff’s room and prior to the trial, the hotel took steps to correct the problem. It added a “continuous bottom guide” and “corner protection” to the glass. At the trials, plaintiff sought to admit evidence of the corrections to help prove the inferior status of the doors when plaintiff was a guest. However, remedial measures following an accident are not admissible in court to prove negligence. The reason for this rule is “to not discourage facilities from taking steps in furtherance of added safety.”

The lessons are clear. Hire competent contractors. If problems with their work arise, address them immediately and thoroughly. Train employees on what not to say to guests. Fight claims for punitive damages.

Karen Morris is a lawyer, municipal judge and distinguished professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., where she teaches hospitality law. Contact her at [email protected].