Hylton v. Gunter
A judgment awarding an undetermined amount of punitive damages and one awarding an undetermined amount of attorneys' fees are treated differently for purposes of establishing whether the judgment is final. The trial court found in favor of the plaintiff, Richard Hylton, on eight counts of his complaint against the defendant, Garfield Gunter. The court awarded Hylton $342,648 in compensatory damages and found that the plaintiff was entitled to "punitive damages in the form of attorneys' fees" on counts alleging fraud, civil theft, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The court instructed the plaintiff to file an affidavit of attorneys' fees. The defendant appealed. Thereafter, the trial court, following a hearing, awarded the plaintiff $23,400 in punitive damages, representing the amount claimed in attorneys' fees. The defendant did not amend his appeal. The Appellate Court placed the appeal on its motion calendar for dismissal for lack of a final judgment. Following argument and briefing, the Appellate Court dismissed the appeal. Pursuant to the 1998 Appellate Court decision in Lord v. Mansfield, the Appellate Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to decide an appeal prior to a determination by the trial court of the recoverability and amount of punitive damages; a judgment is final only after such a determination is made. Lord drew a distinction between punitive damages and attorneys' fees. Since Lord, the Appellate Court has relied on that distinction in determining whether an appeal properly was taken from a final judgment. The dispositive issue was whether the undetermined amount of damages owed at the time of Gunter's appeal was an award of punitive damages or attorney's fees. The four counts on which the court awarded "punitive damages in the form of attorneys' fees" did not have a statutory basis for an award of attorneys' fees. Because the trial court had no statutory basis on which to award only attorneys' fees and because it explicitly called the award "punitive damages," its manifest intention was to award the plaintiff punitive damages. Thus, the finality of the judgment was controlled by Lord.