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When a plaintiff (or counter-claimant) has only sought $1 in relief, do courts ever adjust that upward to reflect the true value of damages?

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    This is a terrible ques-- no wait, it is a good question that invites a terrible answer. The terrible answer is "yes" and that's terrible because you really, really, really OUGHT TO ASK for anything you could possibly get and not rely on a court to "add it on". Because 99.99% of the time, they won't, and will say "should've asked lol". I have asked for "the moon" and been gobsmacked when I easily got it. Had I asked for "the moon and stars", I could have gotten the stars too, or rather, the person ruled a vexatious litigant and saved others the living hell of being sued by them. Apr 16, 2023 at 0:48
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica: That does not make the answer terrible. It makes it a terrible inference/assumption by whoever reads the answer and ends up mistaking a correct answer to a question as if it were advice that is meant to be followed. The correct answer to "What crime(s) did Ted Bundy commit?" should not be interpreted as advice that this behavior is advisable - why would it be any different for the answer to the question asked here?
    – Flater
    Apr 17, 2023 at 6:16

4 Answers 4

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I don't know of any cases where a court has done this, but the law would permit it in an appropriate circumstance.

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(c) federal courts in the may grant relief beyond what the complaint demands:

Final judgment should grant the relief to which each party is entitled, even if the party has not demanded that relief in its pleadings.

The same is true in under N.Y. C.P.L.R. Law § 3017:

The court may grant any type of relief within its jurisdiction appropriate to the proof whether or not demanded.

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  • What is NYCPLR? Apr 14, 2023 at 15:48
  • New York Civil Practice Law & Rules.
    – bdb484
    Apr 14, 2023 at 15:49
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    though it is so customary for lawyers to ask for any and all remedy the court deems proper
    – Trish
    Apr 14, 2023 at 16:38
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    @Trish: It is also customary for lawyers to ask for the largest award of damages (and/or most expansive injunctive relief) which they think the court could possibly agree to, rather than a "reasonable" number that the court is likely to accept, so in practice these upward variances are rarely necessary.
    – Kevin
    Apr 15, 2023 at 20:38
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In , the court is bound by the parties’ claims. See articles 4 and 5 du code de procédure civile:

L'objet du litige est déterminé par les prétentions respectives des parties. (...) Le juge doit se prononcer sur tout ce qui est demandé et seulement sur ce qui est demandé.

The dispute is determined by the claims of all parties. (...) The judge must rule on all which is asked, and only that which is asked.

Say I borrow your car, I return it with a broken window, and we end up at trial.

You claim that (1) you had to pay a mechanic €500 to fix the window and (2) you underwent significant emotional distress when seeing the broken window, worth €1 million. I claim that the window was already damaged when I borrowed the car, so I should not be held liable for anything; furthermore, in any case, the window could have been fixed for €100, and you did not have any significant emotional damage worth paying for.

The judge must rule within the bounds of your claims (1) and (2) (in that example I have not put forward any counterclaim). All the following would be grounds for a successful appeal:

  • the judge rules I owe you €250 for the broken window, and does not say anything about emotional distress. Or alternatively, that €1m for emotional damages is absolutely ridiculous and dismisses the case without saying anything about the repair cost. That would be infra petita (ruling on less than what was asked); each claim must be addressed separately (if only to say, "and because of the same reasoning, claims 2, 7 and 11 also fail").
  • the judge rules I owe you €1000 for the broken window, and nothing for emotional distress. That would be ultra petita: they cannot give you more than what you asked for each item (even if the combined result is within the claim).
  • the judge rules I owe you €300 for the broken window, nothing for emotional distress, and €200 in lost wages for the day you missed work due to having to fix the car. That would be extra petita: they cannot rule on anything that was not raised specifically by the parties (again, even if it fits within the "global envelope" of the claims).

I have never seen a general claim "for any relief that would be just and proper" (or similar). I suspect such a claim would be dismissed, but could not quickly find any case law on the subject. I would say it violates a combination of article 4 and article 6 - you must make specific claims and bring proof to establish each claim.

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    Could a judge decide that emotional distress should be compensated to the extent that they resulted in lost wages, determine that €300 in wages were lost, and award €300 on that basis?
    – supercat
    Apr 15, 2023 at 20:48
  • @supercat: As you put it, that would mean that the judge wrote an interpretation of emotional distress, not one provided by either party. I think that violates article 1 of aforementioned code.
    – MSalters
    Apr 16, 2023 at 22:49
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    @supercat that’s a bit out of my wheelhouse, but if the lost wages have been discussed in motion or at the audience, then I believe it’s fair game (article 7: "the judge may take under consideration facts that were established even if the parties did not specifically put them forward to support their claims"). If they were not, they should not...
    – KFK
    Apr 18, 2023 at 8:17
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    ...but then, there are probably cases where the judge feels party A should get €X, then works his/her way into a decision that gets there based on the claims. Judges are human after all.
    – KFK
    Apr 18, 2023 at 8:20
  • so you think of some reasoning that is akin to "I award 300 for the repair under claim one, as shown by receipts. As for claim 2, distress caused, the monetary value is hard to estimate, and as a baseline 0 is usual. However, as shown by the plaintiff, the day missed at work caused considerable emotional and financial distress. For this emotional distress, the amount of 200 appears to cover the damages suffered."?
    – Trish
    Sep 26, 2023 at 9:47
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Yes, it is possible for the jury to award more than is asked for, whether it was one dollar or another value.

In fact, in Bollea v. Gawker, the plaintiff asked for $100 million. The jury awarded $115 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

(I will note that there was a lot of discussion that this showed the jury was uncommonly disgusted with Gawker.)

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  • I remember that this happened in a movie in which some famous actor played the role of the plaintiff's lawyer. Apr 17, 2023 at 3:52
  • Gotta be careful about liberties that may be taken in fiction
    – Mary
    Apr 17, 2023 at 12:23
  • When driving along the shore of lake Michigan, if you think the authorities are on your tail, you push the button on the dashboard that causes your license plate to be replaced by a fake plate with a different number, then you drive your car into the lake, since, although it looks like an ordinary car, it's a miniature submarine. Then you make your way to the underwater entrance to the cave where the secret headquarters of your secret organization is located. It said so in a book, so it must be true. May 5, 2023 at 14:26
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Typically, a Prayer for Relief (the part of the lawsuit documents that includes the listed Relief) will request "Any other damages as the court sees fit" which allows for this. To my knowledge, it's not usually given beyond the damages sought, but does give the judge the ability to add on damages not directly sought.

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