By: Carmelo T. Torraca, Esquire

In Cerreta v. Red Roof Inns, Inc.[1], the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania decided on September 6, 2016, that an allegation for punitive damages against the Red Roof Inn can withstand a motion to dismiss and requires additional discovery. In this case, Plaintiff was scheduled to have surgery at a local medical center on the morning of July 8, 2015. On July 1, 2015, the Plaintiffs entered into an agreement with Red Roof Inn to provide a room at its Danville location on the night of July 7, 2015. The Plaintiffs checked into the room and went to bed. In the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, Plaintiffs awoke because of itching. The couple turned on the lights and discovered that one of the Plaintiffs had been bitten more than 50 times by bed bugs. The Front Desk was notified. The employee at the Front Desk advised “that it was familiar with the appearance of bed bugs as bed bugs had been present at the Danville Red Roof Inn prior to July 8, 2015.”

The Plaintiffs brought a six-count Complaint for breach of contract, breach of implied warranty of habitability, negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and two counts of lost consortium. Imbedded in each of those counts, was a demand for punitive damages. Red Roof moved to dismiss the punitive damage claims, generally asserting that the Plaintiffs failed to adequately plead sufficient facts pertaining to damages and that punitive damages are not available in a breach of contract or warranty claim.

[1]2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119752.

The Court utilized the standards of Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) that a defendant may file a motion to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The motion tests the legal sufficiency of the pleadings and is aimed to streamline litigation by dispensing with needless discovery and fact-finding. The standards by which the Court judges the motion is if the claim is “facially plausible.” Basically, the pleadings must allow the Court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. It requires the pleadings to show more than a sheer possibility that the defendant acted unlawfully.

This plausibility determination is a context-specific task that requires the reviewing Court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.

Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages are only available to compensate “for conduct that is outrageous, because of defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Fundamentally, punitive damages are penal in nature, designed to punish the tortfeasor. Ordinary negligence will not support an award of punitive damages. There must be conduct going beyond mere negligence into the realm of behavior which is willful, malicious, or so careless as to indicate wanton disregard for the rights of the parties injured.

Additionally, the Court as a general rule finds that actions of breach of contract require traditional contract remedies as the sole remedies available to enforce a contract and implied warranty of habitability claims. However, that rule does not bar the award of such damages where, as here, the breach of contract amounts to a recognizable tort. Such breaches have a duty imposed by society that can mandate punitive damages.

Plaintiffs have pled that a bed bug free hotel room is a duty imposed by society. Taking all of these standards under consideration, the Court denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss the punitive damage aspect of the Complaint, agreeing that a bed bug free hotel room is a duty imposed by society.

While there is discovery to be had and, I expect, motions for summary judgment to dismiss the punitive damage aspect of this claim, it is clear that the Court, upon first review of such a case, believes that punitive damages can be mandated in other similar bed bug situations.