Wisconsin Supreme Court - 209 Wis. 2d 605, 563 N.W.2d 154
In the 1997 case Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, the Wisconsin Supreme Court supported a $100,000 punitive damages award given to an elderly couple who accused a mobile home company of trespassing on their property. This decision overturned lower courts' rulings that dismissed the punitive damages since the plaintiffs only obtained $1 in nominal damages and no compensatory damages.
This case is significant because it underscores the vital nature of one's right to prevent others from entering their land, a basic and long-established property right. The court acknowledged that intentional trespass leads to actual harm to a landowner's privacy and security interests, even without physical land damage. It also noted that punitive damages serve as a fitting way to both discourage and penalize deliberate and malicious property rights breaches, particularly when the trespasser shows disdain for the law and the landowner's preferences. Lastly, the court dismissed the claim that the punitive damages were too high or breached due process, deeming the defendant's behavior to be appalling and dishonest.
The court ruled that intentional trespass to land warrants a punitive damage award, even without measurable harm, as it invades individual and societal interests. The Barnard rule, which allows intentional trespassers to go unpunished without compensable harm, is problematic. Nominal damages may support a punitive damage award in an action for intentional trespass to land. Punitive damages are necessary to punish wrongdoers and deter similar conduct in the future. The court applied the exception to Barnard to Steenberg, as it would be unjust to deprive the Jacques of the benefit of their effort and expense in challenging the old rule. The court ruled that the $100,000 punitive damage award to the Jacques is not excessive, so remittitur is not ordered. The court considered three factors when determining whether a punitive damage award violates the Due Process Clause, and sunbursting does not apply to Steenberg Homes. The court of appeals erred in its decision, and the case is reversed and remanded for reinstatement of the punitive damages award.
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