April 2, 2009

New Zealand High Court Mulls Punitive Damages Down Under

According to a report on Voxy.co.nz, the high court of New Zealand recently heard arguments in a case involving the standards for imposing punitive damages under that country’s law. Plaintiff Susan Couch sued the New Zealand Department of Corrections on claims arising out of serious injuries sustained at the hands of a prison inmate who was granted parole and proceeded on a highly publicized rampage known as the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA killings. Couch claims the department acted with “outrageous and flagrant” disregard for her safety. The court will address whether Couch’s claim for exemplary damages can go forward on that basis, without any allegation that the defendant made a conscious decision to act wrongfully.

New Zealand has a no-fault accident compensation system, and the Deputy Solicitor-General John Pike reportedly argued to the court that allowing punitive damages could undermine the compensation system under the circumstances presented in Couch’s case.

Signs of efforts to expand the availability of punitive damages around the globe could be viewed as an unwelcome American export. This blog has reported previously (e.g., here, here, here and here) on other foreign jurisdictions’ attempts to refine their punitive damages jurisprudence, and on attitudes toward U.S. punitive damages. As noted by Professor Helmut Koziol (the author of a Louisiana Law Review article we’ve described), the American system of punitive damages “cause[s] continential Europeans to shake their heads.”