In a car accident case that we settled, our client suffered serious injuries that included an aggravation to prior neck conditions. At first, her doctors did not recognize the relation of the accident to the worsening condition of her neck. Importantly we were able to speak to her doctors and with their help, she was able to proceed with her medical care. We were able to obtain the necessary expert reports from them, and we were able to prepare her doctors for trial testimony. Surgery ultimately was not required, but nevertheless the doctors’ records and reports ultimately showed the seriousness and permanency of her injuries.
As it happens, the driver of the car that turned left in front of our client was on his cell phone at the time of the accident. He was therefore a distracted driver. We filed suit against the defendant-driver and included a claim for punitive damages. We ultimately settled the case for a confidential amount that was in excess of the defendant driver’s policy limits.
What Are Punitive Damages?
There are two kinds of damages in personal injury lawsuits, compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are made to compensate the victims for their losses or injuries whereas punitive damages are meant to further punish the accused for their outrageous behavior. The purpose of punitive damages is to set an example for others from involving in similar misconduct in the future and to deter the accused from doing such misconduct in future.
What Are Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?
Punitive damages may only proceed where the defendant’s conduct is “outrageous” or when a defendant shows “reckless indifference to the rights of others”. Kirkbride v. Lisbon Contractors, Inc., 555 A.2d 800, 803 (Pa. 1989). This is well known, and what lawyers call hornbook law.
Pennsylvania Laws Concerning Distracted Driving and Punitive Damages
Nevertheless, trial courts are generally reluctant to permit punitive damages claims to proceed solely on the basis of boilerplate allegations of the reckless conduct of the driver. For instance, in the case of Manning v. Barber, No. 17-7915 (C.C.P. Cumberland. County. 2018), the trial dismissed the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim (but allowed the negligence claim to go forward) because the plaintiff only alleged that the defendant was looking at his phone while driving.
When Are Punitive Damages Qualified?
States rarely permit punitive damages for different cases. Infact, most states restrict punitive damages for only certain cases that involve personal injury or medical malpractice cases. Punitive damages only awarded to the cases where the defendant acted outrageously and intentionally. The defendant’s misconduct should be either –
- Wanton Disregard/ Recklessness – where the defendant behaved with reckless disregard to the outcome of his or actions.
- Intentionally – where the defendant acted willfully to cause harm and damages.
How We Kept The Punitive Damage Claim in The Case?
In our client’s case we were able to look at the defendant’s phone records and show he had made multiple phone calls preceding the moment of impact, was an inexperienced driver, and had accumulated speeding tickets in the months prior to the accident. This, and other evidence, was enough to keep the punitive damage claim in the case. We leveraged the potential of a punitive damages verdict in the settlement negotiations, thus getting our client more money than the insurance company would have otherwise paid.
What Are The Three Types of Distracted Driving?
We at Carpey Law handle many cases involving distracted drivers who injure our clients. Of course, with more drivers on the road, and with the prevalence of cell phone use, these kinds of distracted driving cases are becoming more and more common. These cases can take the form of:
- Manual distraction (hands coming off the steering wheel to reach for cell phone/GPS/radio)
- Visual distraction (looking away from the driving path)
- Cognitive distraction (not paying attention to your driving)
Can you Get Punitive Damages in a Distracted Driving Settlement?
The Pennsylvania courts are moving towards allowing punitive damages claims to proceed in distracted driving cases. These claims are brought by showing reckless and dangerous behavior by the defendant. Just being able to show the defendant driver was inattentive or negligent is not enough to bring a punitive damage claim, although it is enough to proceed with a case in negligence. Additional evidence is necessary to prove a punitive damage claim, over and above the evidence needed to prove the other driver was negligent and caused injuries to the plaintiff. Insurance companies will fight to keep punitive damage settlement claims out of a case, but we at Carpey Law know how to defeat the insurance companies and their attorneys and have been doing just that for over 30 years.
Why Choose Carpey Law if You’ve Been in a Car Accident
This case is a perfect example of the kind of lawyering Carpey Law is known for. We took a straightforward car accident case, dug into the facts, analyzed complex evidence, and maximized our client’s financial com.
Other Types of Cases with Punitive Damages
Punitive Damages In An Electric Company Case
Attorney Stuart Carpey explains a punitive damage case where a woman got injured and died eventually because of a downed electrical wire. The electric company in Pennsylvania has a history of not maintaining the electrical wire correctly. That led to the case getting settled through not only compensatory damages but also punitive damages awarded to her family. Watch the video to know more about how commonly punitive damages are available and it goes with the case.
Punitive Damages In The Tracy Morgan V. Wal-Mart Case
Did the Walmart truck driver involved in the Tracy Morgan crash exceed the “hours of service” rules (HOS) mandated by federal trucking regulations? If so, is Walmart susceptible to punitive damages?
Tracy Morgan has settled his personal injury case with Walmart. There are allegations that the truck driver employed by Walmart violated federal regulations by staying on the road too long. Under the “HOS” rules, truck drivers are required to take breaks after a certain amount of time on the road.
If the Walmart driver was over his hours of service ,it would have been either because he exceeded his hours by his own volition, or because Walmart had some sort of policy in place that encouraged and allowed their drivers to go over the number of allowable driving hours in order to make faster deliveries for instance. Morgan’s lawyers would need to prove that the driver being over on his hours was part of the cause of the accident, but either scenario would be bad for Walmart and could expose them to punitive damages.
Part of the Tracy Morgan settlement that his lawyers obtained for him definitely included compensatory damages. In other words, he has received money from Walmart that will compensate him for his physical injuries, his psychological trauma, and his lost wages. Punitive damages could have been awarded on top of compensatory damages if the case had gone to trial, and punitive damages are intended to penalize the at fault party for their intentional or reckless conduct (ie: not following the HOS rules).
If Walmart did, in fact, have a policy in place that was contrary to federal trucking regulations and that was partially responsible for this devastating and high-profile accident, there is no way they would want that kind of information publicized. This could be another reason why they settled relatively quickly with Tracy Morgan, and because the settlement was confidential, there may have been elements of punitive damages included in the overall settlement.
Stuart A. Carpey, who has been practicing as an attorney since 1987, focuses his practice on complex civil litigation which includes representing injured individuals in a vast array of personal injury cases.