Protecting the Motor Carrier against the Threat of Punitive Damages: An Updated Case Review

By Burden, Donna L.; Mausolf, Ashlyn N. | Defense Counsel Journal, January 2015 | Go to article overview

Protecting the Motor Carrier against the Threat of Punitive Damages: An Updated Case Review


Burden, Donna L., Mausolf, Ashlyn N., Defense Counsel Journal


Historically, the case law regarding the issue of punitive damages against trucking companies stemming from the accidents of its drivers has been mostly favorable to trucking companies. This makes sense considering the extremely high standards courts impose before they will award punitive damages. The standard is typically wanton or reckless behavior.1 Furthermore, a majority of jurisdictions have determined that punitive damages may not be awarded against an employer if the employer is only vicariously responsible for the employee's conduct.2 For an employer to be liable for punitive damages for conduct arising out of the acts of one of its employees, the employer must have authorized or ratified its employee's wrongful conduct.3 In most cases where a truck driver gets into an accident, there is absolutely no proof to support a finding that the defendant driver himself acted in such a manner to warrant punitive damages. It is even more difficult for a plaintiff to demonstrate that an employer itself acted with the requisite conduct to warrant punitive damages.

Because of this high standard, plaintiffs' attorneys are getting more creative. A quick Google search of "punitive damages in trucking cases" yields results of many plaintiffs' attorney websites stressing the importance of seeking punitive damages in trucking cases and offering advice about the means in which the plaintiffs' bar can do so. During our research for this article, we even stumbled across the treatise "Litigating Truck Accident Cases," a three volume set that offers substantive guidance to plaintiffs' attorneys to handle personal injury suits involving trucking companies. One of the documents in this volume is a form that provides an outline for a motion in opposition to a motion for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages. The motion details various examples of specific details that might be used to defeat the trucking company's motion for summary judgment, such as Department of Transportation and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA") violations.

In the typical trucking case, the plaintiff alleges reckless conduct against the driver, the driver's employer, and any other party the plaintiff can assert a cause of action against. The popular mindset is to allege punitive damages and hope that discovery will offer facts to support the award. If that particular set of facts does not justify such an award, then a defense attorney typically will move to have the punitive damages claim dismissed, and "no harm, no foul" in the eyes of the plaintiffs attorney. With this behavior in mind, it is increasingly important for defense attorneys to move to have the claim for punitive damages dismissed, but it is equally important that the trucking companies themselves stay vigilant. Companies themselves must ensure that, when the plaintiff s attorney begins sifting through the company's discovery responses, there is absolutely nothing there that would prevent the defense attorney from prevailing on a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the punitive damages claim.

A personal injury claim against the company typically includes allegations of negligence, such as negligent hiring, negligent training, and negligent supervision. Of course, negligent conduct on the company's part is not enough to support a punitive damages claim. While the specific standard for punitive damages varies based on the jurisdiction, there typically must be an allegation that the company consciously disregarded a known risk.

For any of these issues, it is critical to keep in mind that there must be a causal link between the claim in which plaintiff alleges warrants punitive damages and the cause of the accident. In other words, it is arguably irrelevant that the company did not train the drivers on cell phone use if the facts show that the accident occurred when the driver did not have a cell phone with him and the accident was caused by icy road conditions. …

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