Appeal by plaintiff pursuant to G.S. 7A-30(2) from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals which vacated that portion of the judgment entered by Bruce, J., at the 8 February 1981 Session of Edgecombe Superior Court awarding plaintiff punitive damages.
Branch, Chief Justice. Justice Carlton did not participate in the decision of this case.
We first consider whether plaintiff's complaint stated a cause of action for punitive damages.
The rationale permitting recovery of punitive damages is that such damages may be awarded in addition to compensatory damages to punish a defendant for his wrongful acts and to deter others from committing similar acts. A civil action may not be maintained solely for the purpose of collecting punitive damages but may only be awarded when a cause of action otherwise exists in which at least nominal damages are recoverable by the plaintiff. Worthy v. Knight, 210 N.C. 498, 187 S.E. 771 (1936).
It is well established in this jurisdiction that punitive damages may be recovered for an assault and battery but are allowable only when the assault and battery is accompanied by an element of aggravation such as malice, or oppression, or gross and wilful wrong, or a wanton and reckless disregard of plaintiff's rights. Oestreicher v. American Nat. Stares, Inc., 290 N.C. 118, 225 S.E.2d 797 (1976); Van Leuven v. Motor Lines 261 N.C. 539, 135 S.E.2d 640 (1964); Allred v. Graves, 261 N.C. 31, 134 S.E.2d 186 (1964); Trogden v. Terry, 172 N.C. 540, 90 S.E. 583 (1916). See also 123 A.L.R. 1115 and 16 A.L.R. 771; 6A C.J.S. Assault & Battery § 33 (1975).
The complaint reads as follows:
The plaintiff, complaining of the defendant, alleges and says as follows:
1. Plaintiff and defendant are both citizens and residents of Edgecombe County, North Carolina.
2. That on or about the 19th day of October, 1978, the defendant, without just cause, did intentionally,
willfully and maliciously assault and batter the plaintiff, inflicting upon him serious and permanent personal injuries thereby causing him to suffer both in body and in mind and that he did aggravate a preexisting injury which has caused the plaintiff additional mental anguish, and suffering.
3. Plaintiff has incurred medical bills in an amount not yet determined and he is informed and believes and so alleges that additional expenses will be forthcoming in the future.
Wherefore, the plaintiff prays the Court that he have and recover of the defendant the amount of $25,000 as actual damages and the amount of $50,000 as punitive damages, together with the costs of this action.
Prior to the adoption of the Rules of Civil Procedure on 1 January 1970, our decisions required that a plaintiff plead facts showing aggravating circumstances which would justify an award of punitive damages if supported by the evidence. Clemmons v. Insurance ...