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Dwyer v. Ameriprise Fin., Inc., 2024 Pa. LEXIS 608, 2024 WL 1776091 (S. Ct. April 25, 2024) (Wecht, J.).

A trial jury returned a verdict in favor of Earl John and Christine Dwyer against Ameriprise Financial, Inc., on common-law claims of negligent and fraudulent misrepresentation. The jury found Ameriprise’s conduct to have been outrageous, such that the Dwyers were entitled to punitive damages. Premised upon the same conduct, the trial court decided that Ameriprise also had violated Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“CPL”). The CPL authorizes the trial court to award, in its discretion, “up to three times the actual damages sustained.” The trial court here declined to make such an award, opining that treble damages under the CPL would be duplicative of the punitive damages awarded by the jury on the common-law claims. The Superior Court affirmed, viewing the trial court’s decision as a permissible exercise of its discretion.

By relying upon the jury’s common-law punitive damages award to limit the availability of treble damages under the CPL, the lower courts have undermined the legislative intent of the CPL. In doing so, the lower courts erred as a matter of law. Rather than being interchangeable with punitive damages, treble damages under the CPL are a separate remedy available to the Dwyers. The availability of treble damages is wholly independent of any entitlement to punitive damages, and must be considered by the trial court without regard to a punitive damages award on related common-law claims. Contrary to the Superior Court’s holding, nullifying the availability of a statutory award because of a common-law award is not a permissible exercise of discretion. It is an erroneous decision not to exercise statutory discretion. Accordingly, we reverse the order of the Superior Court.

Where the trial court exercises discretion under Section 9.2 to award “up to three times the actual damages sustained” or “additional relief as [the court] deems necessary or proper,” the trial court must do so in service of the legislative goals animating the CPL. In affirming the trial court, the Superior Court found that the Dwyers already had been “adequately compensated” without treble damages. There is no statutory language in the CPL that supports an award of damages based upon the amorphous concept of adequate compensation.

Contrary to the lower courts’ holdings, the trial court’s decision not to award treble damages due to the award of punitive damages and attorneys’ fees was not an exercise of discretion. It was a refusal to exercise discretion. This refusal resulted from a purely legal misapplication of the law. We hold, as a matter of law, that the availability of up to treble damages under Section 9.2(a) is not dependent upon other damages to which the plaintiff is also entitled. The trial court’s exercise of discretion under Section 9.2(a) of the CPL was clouded by its consideration of other damages. Contrary to the trial court’s belief, the court may not rely upon the jury’s award of punitive damages on the common-law claims to resolve the Dwyers’ entitlement to treble damages under the CPL. The trial court may not conflate the two species of damages. Rather, it was incumbent upon the trial court to evaluate the Dwyers’ request for treble damages in light of the legislative goals apparent in the CPL.

Accordingly, we remand this matter to the Superior Court with directions to remand to the trial court for reconsideration of damages under Section 9.2(a) of the CPL. In exercising the discretion afforded by the statute, the trial court is directed to consider the remedial purposes of the CPL—to incentivize private actions to root out unfair and deceptive trade practices, to compensate the plaintiff, and to deter wrongful conduct. The trial court is directed to determine whether the award of actual damages alone is sufficient to accomplish the legislative purposes of the CPL. The trial court may not consider the Dwyers’ separate award of punitive damages or the award of attorneys’ fees, neither of which may serve to limit the availability of up to treble damages or additional relief under the CPL.

Chief Justice Todd and Justices Donohue, Dougherty and Mundy join the opinion.

Justice Brobson files a concurring and dissenting opinion.