A Florida appellate court this week ruled that a hospital whose chief executive stated that a former employee was not even fit to perform surgery on a dog is liable for punitive damages – to the tune of $5 million.
Although the jury did not award Dr. Samuel Sadow compensatory damages, which normally approximate the financial loss resulting from the defamation, it awarded him the huge sum in punitive damages. The court wrote in the opinion that a large punitive damages award is appropriate when a case involves a "high degree of culpability" and "blameworthiness."
According to the opinion, Lawnwood Medical Center CEO Robert Dunwoody said in the presence of multiple doctors that Sadow "is not a good doctor. He has had multiple lawsuits filed against him. He is a bad person. And quite frankly . . . I would not send my dog to him for surgery.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has in the past stated that punitive damages awards should be proportional to the compensatory damages recovered by the plaintiff.
But the state’s District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach (Fourth District) ruled that because the statement was slanderous on its face and was intended to injure plaintiff, the jury could consider and assess punitive damages without any finding of an amount of compensatory damages.