The High Cost of Malice
by Ron Davis
The showing of “malice” and “animosity” during the eviction of an unwanted tenant has cost a Maine shopping center owner $25,000.
The shopping center, located in Augusta, had leased space to the tenant for the operation of a “chemical-free” nightclub. And the eviction occurred shortly after the nightclub opened.
The shopping center owner apparently did not like the manner in which the nightclub was operating. So he and an associate decided to operate a different nightclub in that space.
The shopping center owner consequently changed the locks on the nightclub doors and left town. The tenant was thus unable to retrieve his business equipment and personal belongings (including his insulin for the treatment of his diabetes).
Weeks later, the tenant attempted to open another club nearby. And although his initial nightclub was a huge success, he never generated sufficient profits in the new venture to stay in business. He soon shut down.
He then sued the shopping center owner on grounds of illegal eviction. He also sought damages for the expenses incurred in remodeling the premises to make it suitable for a nightclub.
A Maine jury decided that the shopping center owner must repay the tenant the amount spent for renovations and equipment. In addition, the jury awarded the tenant $25,000 in punitive damages. The shopping center owner appealed.
The Maine Supreme Court upheld the punitive damage award, explaining, “The evidence was sufficient for a jury to conclude that the shopping center owner planned to drive the tenant out of business so that he and his associate could start up a similar business in the same location. His agreement with his associate, the egregious illegal lockout of the rented premises, and the wrongful retention of the tenant’s business equipment, along with evidence of personal animosity toward the tenant are sufficient to support a finding that the shopping center owner acted with actual malice or that his conduct was so outrageous that malice could be implied.” (Newbury v. Virgin, 802 A.2d 413 [Me. 2002])
Decision: July 2002
Published: September 2002