The Concept of Punitive Damages in Trucking Accident Cases

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled on a motion earlier this fall, which gives an informative look at the concept of punitive damage awards in trucking accident cases.

The case, Boone v. Brown, Dist. Court, WD Va. (2013), involved a vehicle accident, whereby the plaintiff’s vehicle was stopped at a red light, and a professional truck driver stopped behind her, then began to steer his tractor-trailer to the left in preparation for a wide right turn. In doing so, he reportedly struck her vehicle three separate times, causing her serious bodily injury and property damage. After the collision, the driver reportedly left the scene.

The plaintiff filed suit, alleging negligence, and seeking seeking $200,000 in general, special, and compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages as a result of the driver’s conduct. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss as to her claim for punitive damages.

In deciding on the motion, the court engaged in an in-depth discussion regarding when punitive damages attach to trucking accident collisions. It affirmed that punitive damages are available “only where there is misconduct or malice, or such recklessness or negligence as evinces a conscious disregard of the rights of others.”

Plaintiffs who seek punitive damages must show that the defendant was conscious that the conduct in which he was engaged was likely to result in injury, and that he intentionally did some wrongful act, or omitted to perform a known duty, which resulted in the injurious result.

Both the defendant and plaintiff relied on another recent decision regarding a trucking accident, whereby the plaintiff in that case was given leave to amend the punitive damages claim, and the subsequent claim survived a motion to dismiss. Madison v. Acuna (Acuna I), No. 6:12-cv-00028, 2012 WL 4458510 (W.D. Va. Aug. 28, 2012).

In the prior case, which plaintiff relied upon, the amended complaint demonstrated that the truck driver had fallen asleep behind the wheel, and had previously received training of some sort regarding the dangers of falling asleep behind the wheel. Therefore, the court in that case reasoned, a reasonable jury could potentially find that the truck driver had acted with a conscious disregard for the safety of other drivers on the road.

Here, however, the court held, the plaintiff failed to allege any particular knowledge or recklessness on the part of the driver. Rather, the court found this accident was more of a claim “for ordinary negligence,” and therefore punitive damages did not apply. The court therefore granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, while giving the plaintiff the opportunity to amend the complaint pleading any additionally relevant facts supporting a punitive damages claim.

Just as in Virginia, punitive damages may not be easily available in “typical” personal injury vehicle accident lawsuits. The reason for this, is because the criminal law system is designed to focus primarily on the punitive aspect of the law, punishing the individual for his or her wrongful conduct.

Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, are meant to focus on compensating the victim, attempting to use financial compensation to make them whole again. Therefore, it is only under certain circumstances, where there is evidence that the defendant acted in some particularly blameworthy manner that punitive damages may be available.

Punitive damages are worth explaining, because, following any serious altercation, particularly a car accident involving a truck, we can end up feeling incredibly angry and unsettled. It is very frustrating to learn that, even when we know, and witnesses may attest to the fact that, the other driver was at fault, it’s not so simple as telling that to law enforcement, or insurance companies, and getting compensation. Rather, according to our legal system, we have to not only file a lawsuit, but also prove, with evidence, that not only was the other driver responsible for driving negligently, but also that the negligence was the direct cause of the resulting injuries and other damages, which in turn have to be successfully legally established.

If you or a loved one has been injured or killed in a trucking accident that occurred in the Maryland or Washington D.C. areas, contact the experienced trucking accident attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen Personal Injury Lawyers today. You can reach us by calling 1-800-654-1949 or through this website, in order to schedule your initial complimentary consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Court of Appeals Denies Reversal in Fatal Multiple Truck-Vehicle Collision, Maryland Trucking Accident Lawyer Blog, published November 28, 2013
U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Wilhem Test, Expert Testimony Unnecessary to Prove Back Injuries In Truck Accident, Maryland Trucking Accident Lawyer Blog, published November 20, 2013

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