Suing for Punitive Damages in Small Claims Court?

by Eva
(New York, USA)

I live in St Thomas, Virgin Islands I am requesting that the court grant me Punitive Damages brought on by the conscious conduct of my niece during the death of my mother for financial and mental injuries.

My mother lived in Hollis, New York, my niece was with her on the day she died, she also was looking after her since I was so far away. This care helped me financially since the continuous travel was draining. My mother died on November 10 2010 at 09:45 in the morning the very day I was scheduled to leave for New York to meet with the doctors.

My niece was raised by my Mother but moved out and lived elsewhere for an estimated twenty (20) years. Out of those years she visited my mother randomly and never cared for her. To my surprise, since she was laid off she was continuously by my mother's house. Part of the time she was doing her own chores like washing clothes and gaining financially by charging my mother for trips to the doctor, etc.

On the day of my mother's death, while at the airport I received a phone call from my daughter telling me that my niece changed the locks on my mother's house (without giving me any warning knowing I was flying to New York) and my daughter was trying to get in using the keys given to her by my mother.

On my arrival, I stayed at a hotel that I previously booked prior to the news of her death. When my daughters and I were able to communicate with my niece, we were asked to meet at the house. At that meeting, I told my niece that my daughters and I will be staying at my mother's house and that we will move in the next day since in my original plans I was returning sooner. Now we had a funeral to plan.

During the day that we were allowed to enter my mother's house I could not find any of my mailings from the insurance company that were addressed to my mother's house in my name or any of my mother's mail. I asked numerous times afterward for this mail and was ignored.

We tried numerous times the next day to communicate with my niece or her daughter to let them know we were coming over and they kept putting us off. Alternatively, trying to meet us at a restaurant or changing the time and ultimately canceling at the last minute. This caused us to sit around continuously in the hotel room feeling useless.

We got weary of the no returns texts, messages or the run around of her calling the person who did not call her to change the meeting. After the funeral, I called and asked to come over to the house. She said it was okay and then at the last minute called me and changed to meet at a restaurant. At the restaurant she promised to call me that next day so I could come to the house and did not.

I had lost a chance (affecting me terribly) not to see my mother's things or be in her house during my bereavement, a lot of these thing were given to her by me and hold serious sentiments.

My niece told me that her attorney told her not to allow me in my mother's house. The defendant's negligence deprived me of the opportunity to obtain benefit or to ease the pain from my loss. Because she had certain control during my absence, she became impertinent and decided to rebuke me and my family further during the death of my mother.

This willful action caused me not only a financial burden by staying longer in a hotel, but also deep pain and embarrassment with my mother's friends who tried to visit me there. She put me on the spot of facing a dilemma created by her that I can not handle. I have loss of appetite and sleep that is still affecting me to this day.

My question is, I'd like to sue her for punitive damages but is this possible in small claims court? What should I do?

Visitor Question:
Disclaimer: Information provided in our response is NOT formal legal advice. It is generic legal information based on the very limited information provided. Under no circumstances should the information in our response, or anywhere else on this site be relied upon when deciding the proper course of a legal matter. Our response does NOT create an attorney-client relationship. Always get a formal case review from a licensed attorney in your area.

ANSWER for "Suing for Punitive Damages in Small Claims Court?":

First and foremost, our condolences for the loss of your mother. Secondly, I do not think that small claims court is the appropriate venue in which to bring your claim. Small claims are limited in that you can only sue up to a certain amount (usually $7,500, but it varies by jurisdiction) and you cannot be represented by an attorney. As far as punitive damages, they are not allowed in small claims.

Furthermore, you cannot sue for punitive damages alone. You must first sue for an underlying cause of action such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, the conduct of which is so egregious that it rises to a level allowing for punitive damages.

As far as her conduct, it is questionable what your cause of action might be. It is also questionable whether you can relate her conduct with your damages which is an essential element to any tort cause of action. Perhaps there was a special relationship between she and your mother of which you are unaware; Perhaps there was a newly drafted will signed by your mother giving her exclusive possession of the house.

Unfortunately, this is a case which is likely a probate matter (if she died without a will) and a civil matter enforcing the terms of a trust, if she died with a living trust.

The personal injury component is weaker and while you may feel that going after your niece will make you feel better, it will not bring your mother back. At this point, you will need to pursue the avenues above to protect your interests in her estate.

The above is general information. Laws change frequently, and across jurisdictions. You should get a personalized case evaluation from an attorney licensed in your state. Find a local attorney to give you a free case review here, or call (888) 647-2490.

Best of luck,

Judge Calisi

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