In Sensational Four, Inc. v. Tri-Par Die and Mold Corporation, 2016 IL App (2d) 150468, the food company plaintiff filed a replevin action against a manufacturer to recover plaintiff’s injection molding equipment used to make jars and lids.
When the defendant failed to return plaintiff’s equipment despite a court replevin order to do so, plaintiff filed a rule to show cause motion and amended its complaint to assert various tort and contract claims.
The trial court claim found for the plaintiff after a bench trial and assessed punitive damages of $100,000 against the defendant for its “egregious” and malicious refusal to return the plaintiff’s equipment. The defendant appealed on the basis that its due process rights were violated by the punitive damage award.
Punitive damages aren’t favored in Illinois. Their purpose is to punish a defendant and deter others from acting with willful disregard for others’ rights.
Replevin is a statutory proceeding that requires a plaintiff to follow the replevin statute’s (see 735 ILCS 5/19-101, et seq.) provisions to the letter.
When construing a statute, a court looks first to the statutory language to divine the legislature’s intent. And courts generally should not graft language on to a silent statute since this encroaches on the legislature’s drafting role.
Some statutes explicitly provide for punitive damages while others implicitly allow them. See Public Utilities Act (punitive damages expressly allowed); Nursing Home Care Act (implied punitives allowed where statute references “any other type of relief”). (¶ 25)
The Illinois replevin statute says nothing about punitive damages. It allows a plaintiff to recover damages sustained by the wrongful detention of the property in question along with costs and expenses related to the replevin. 735 ILCS 5/19-101, 120, 125. (¶¶ 26-28). Nowhere does the statute mention punitive damages.
The Court reversed the punitive damage award since the replevin statute doesn’t explicitly allow punitive damages. The Court noted that the legislature could have easily provided for a punitive damages remedy in the statute’s text if that was its intent.
This case serves as a straight-forward example of a court refusing to inject meaning into a statute whose text is clear. Where a statute doesn’t specifically allow for punitive damages, a plaintiff will have difficulty convincing a court to award them. By contrast, if the statutory language is open-ended, like the Nursing Home Care Act’s “any other type of relief” language, a plaintiff may have a claim for punitive damages if it can prove a defendant’s intentional and extreme conduct.