BEFORE ROY NOBLE LEE, PRATHER and ZUCCARO
ROY NOBLE LEE, CHIEF JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:
Lucille McGowan, widow of John L. McGowan, Deceased, and A. J. Reese, Administrator of the Estate of John L. McGowan, deceased intestate, filed suit against the Estate of Ruby C. Wright in the Circuit Court of Clarke County, Mississippi, for damages, actual and punitive, as a
result of the wrongful death of McGowan. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs in the sum of nineteen hundred fifty-nine dollars fifty cents ($1,959.50), the exact amount of the funeral expenses and ambulance fees, and judgment was entered by the lower court in that amount. The plaintiffs have appealed and assign six (6) errors in the trial below.
On January 20, 1982, John L. McGowan was riding in 1970 Buick automobile owned and driven by Ruby C. Wright in a southerly direction on Mississippi State Highway 11. Jessie L. Hayden was driving his pickup truck in a northerly direction in the northbound lane of the highway, and the vehicles were approaching and meeting each other. The vehicles collided head-on in the northbound lane, resulting in the instant death of McGowan. Ruby C. Wright died eight (8) days later.
On September 30, 1985, this suit was filed against the Estate of Ruby C. Wright, Deceased, seeking actual and punitive damages for the wrongful death of McGowan. The case was heard March 13-14, 1986, and the trial judge granted a peremptory instruction on liability in favor of the appellants. The only question this Court deems necessary to answer is whether the damages were adequate and whether the judgment should be set aside and a new trial ordered on the issue of damages alone.
Punitive damages may be recovered in proper cases. In Bryant v. Alpha Entertainment Corp., 508 So.2d 1094 (Miss. 1987), the Court defined those circumstances under which punitive damages are allowable:
In negligence cases this Court has held" punitive damages are allowable only upon proof of gross negligence or willful misconduct. "Jesco, Inc. v. Shannon, 451 So.2d 694, 704 (Miss. 1984); Miss. Power Co. v. Jones, 369 So.2d 1381 (Miss. 1979)' Fowler Butane Gas Co. v. Varner, 244 Miss. 130, 141 So.2d 226 (1962)." Punitive damages are ordinarily recoverable only in cases where negligence is so gross as to indicate a wanton disregard for the safety of others. "U.S. Industries v. McClure Furniture Co., 371 So.2d 391, 393 (Miss. 1979).
508 So.2d at 1098. See also Gardner v. Jones, 464 So.2d 1144, 1148 (Miss. 1985); Consolidated American Life Ins. Co. v. Toche, 410 So.2d 1303, 1304-05 (Miss. 1982).
The lower court granted punitive damages Instruction No. P-5 at the request of the plaintiff, which follows:
Punitive damages are added damages awarded for public service in bringing a wrongdoer to account, as an example to warn and deter others from repeating the same act. They are never awarded to benefit the injured party or as a matter of right, but rather to punish and to compel the wrongdoer to have due and proper regard for the rights of the public.
Punitive damages may be awarded Plaintiff if you find that the Defendant's reckless acts, if any, were committed by gross negligence indicative of a wanton and wilful disregard of the rights of others.
The evidence indicates that neither vehicle was exceeding the lawful speed limit, but the collision occurred in the northbound lane, not the proper lane of travel for Ruby C. Wright, just past a one-street intersection (another northbound street intersected Highway 11 at this juncture).
The award of punitive damages is within the discretion of the jury, which has very wide latitude in determining whether punitive damages should be granted and, if so, the amount of those damages. The jury may have concluded that, even though the collision occurred in Ruby Wright's wrong lane, she was guilty of only simple negligence. The punitive damage Instruction P-5 told the jury in part" They are never awarded to benefit the injured party or as a matter of right, but rather to punish and to compel the wrongdoer to have due and proper regard ...