The opinion of the court was delivered by: John A. Gorman United States Magistrate Judge
Now before the Court are Defendant's Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict on Count I (#62), pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), and Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial or Alternatively to Alter or Amend judgment (#65), pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. For the following reasons, the Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial or to alter or amend judgment is denied and the Defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law on Count I of the Complaint is granted.
This case was tried to a jury, which reached a verdict on April 4, 2007. Judgment on that verdict was entered on 4/9/07. The jury rejected all claims except the following two: The jury found in favor of Plaintiff Tim Strange on his Defamation Per Se claim against Phil Collins (Count I of the Complaint); the verdict form on that claim shows that "zero" was awarded in compensatory damages and "$25,000" was awarded in punitive damages. The jury also found in favor of Counter-plaintiff Phil Collins on his claim of Fraudulent Misrepresentation (Count 2 of the Counter-complaint) against both Tim and Carrie Strange and awarded Collins $3,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages from each defendant.
The Plaintiffs have filed a motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, asking for a new trial or to alter or amend the judgment, because the verdict "shows the jury was confused and rendered inconsistent verdicts." Five separate bases for the motion are stated: (1) the award of punitive damages without compensatory damages on the defamation claim; (2) an award in favor of Tim Strange on the defamation claim but in favor of Collins on the false light and commercial disparagement claims; (3) an award in favor of Tim Strange but not Carrie Strange on the defamation claim; (4) the apparently arbitrary amount of damages on the fraud counterclaim; and (5) duplication of damages on the fraud counterclaim.
Defendant has filed a motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.*fn1 The only issue raised in this motion is identical to one of the issues raised by Plaintiffs, namely the legal error in awarding punitive damages.
Under Illinois law a claim for punitive damages fails if plaintiff sustains no actual damages. Florsheim v. Travelers Indemnity Co. of Illinois, 393 N.E.2d 1223, 1233 (Ill.App. 1979); Price v. Philip Morris Inc., 848 N.E.2d 1, 60 (Ill. 2005). See also, IPI 35.01; By-Prod Corp. v. Armen-Berry Co., 668 F.2d 956 (7th Cir. 1982)(Illinois law).
In By-Prod, the Seventh Circuit noted McNay v. Stratton, 9 Il..App. 215 (1881), which allowed imposition of punitive damages in the absence of compensatory damages. It appears that McNay is the only such case in Illinois based on the common law*fn2 . Other than McNay, this Court's exhaustive search found dozens and dozens of Illinois cases holding that punitive damages may not be recovered in a common law case, unless they are accompanied by compensatory or nominal*fn3 damages; no case other than McNay was to the contrary.
The instructions given by the Court and agreed to by the parties, were clear: punitive damages could only be awarded "in addition to" compensatory damages, and "if" the jury had first found that compensatory damages should be awarded, then they were authorized to "add [punitive damages] to the award of compensatory damages".
It is therefore without dispute that the verdict on the defamation claim cannot stand as returned. The question is whether the remedy for this error is amendment of the judgment or a new trial.
The jury clearly considered the question of compensatory damages. The word "zero" was written into the space for the dollar amount of their award of such damages. A new trial would do nothing more than give the plaintiffs a second bite at the apple. The proper remedy for the jury's error is amendment of the judgment, striking the award of punitive damages.
Moreover, because damages are an essential element of a tort claim, the finding of zero damages means that plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof. The Judgment on the defamation claim must be vacated and an amended judgment must be entered, showing judgment as a matter of law in favor of defendant and against plaintiffs.
Once the judgment on the defamation claim is amended, there is no inconsistency between the outcome of that claim and the false light claim or the outcome of the defamation claim and the commercial disparagement claim. Nor is there any inconsistency between the verdicts ...