Punitive Damages In Trucking Case Recently Addressed By Federal Middle District Court

05.21.14

Allegations of recklessness are always of concern to defense counsel as they are used to support claims for punitive damages. At the appropriate time, it is recommended that defendants move for partial summary judgment arguing that there has been no evidence elicited during discovery of reckless actions attributable to the defendant driver. However, Judge Sylvia H. Rambo recently denied a defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment seeking to dismiss a plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.
 
Specifically, in Stemrich v. Zadiyoka, No. 1:12-cv-1409 (M.D. Pa. 2-21-14 Rambo, J.), the plaintiff produced an expert report which concluded that the defendant truck driver had operated his tractor-trailer with a “reckless disregard for the safety of the plaintiff and everyone else on the highway.” Using this expert opinion as support, the plaintiff then filed a motion for leave to amend the complaint to include claims for punitive damages. At the close of discovery, the defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment arguing there was no evidence in the record to suggest that the defendant tractor-trailer driver was reckless. The Middle District Federal Court determined that Pennsylvania Substantive Law would apply. Therefore, the standard for the award of punitive damages would require “conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or … reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Citing the case of Hutchinson v. Luddy, 870 A.2d 766, 770 (Pa.2005), Judge Rambo recognized that Pennsylvania law requires the defendant’s state of mind to have been intentional, reckless or malicious while performing the actions at issue. Therefore, the defendant must have a subjective appreciation of the harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and then act in conscious disregard of that risk.
 
In citing the plaintiff’s expert report, Judge Rambo referenced the defendant driver’s description of the interstate (that the roadway was wet and slick from rain), the defendant driver’s speed, the distance (deemed inappropriate by the expert) at which defendant driver followed the plaintiff’s vehicle and the defendant driver’s failure to maintain a proper lookout ahead of his vehicle. The plaintiff’s expert included that defendant driver violated numerous Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and should have been aware of these regulations through his training. The Judge concluded that a jury could reasonably find that a trained truck driver with six years of experience should consciously appreciate the risk of driving too close to another vehicle on a slick, wet road. In addressing the defendant’s argument that the plaintiffs had not proved the defendant driver’s subjective appreciation of the risk of harm involved, Judge Rambo reasoned that the dispositive issue requiring a determination of a party’s state of mind should render the Court reluctant to grant a motion for summary judgment because much depends upon the credibility of the witness; an assessment best left to the fact finder.
 
In light of the foregoing, Judge Rambo also denied the defendant trucking company’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages on the basis of vicarious liability. It is long been the law in Pennsylvania that punitive damages may be awarded on the basis of vicarious liability. The employer doesn’t have to direct the agent’s actions nor approve of the agent’s actions for punitive damages to be imposed upon the agent. Since a jury could reasonably find that the defendant driver acted with reckless indifference to the rights of others through the manner of his driving, the claim for punitive damages against the employer must stand.
 
The defendant trucking company also argued in its motion for partial summary judgment a lack of evidence suggesting that the defendant trucking company/employer acted recklessly in hiring, training and supervising the defendant driver. Judge Rambo again referenced the plaintiff’s expert report which detailed numerous violations of applicable FMCSRs. The expert report further argued that the defendant trucking company failed to verify the information contained in the defendant driver’s employment application. Finally, there were references in the expert report to the defendant routinely falsifying his driving logs which the defendant trucking company failed to audit. Judge Rambo held that a jury could reasonably find the defendant trucking company consciously appreciated the risk of hiring the defendant driver without verifying the information contained in his employment application and without auditing his driving logs despite being required to do so by the FMCSRs. Federal Courts in Pennsylvania have previously held that punitive damages may be appropriate regarding a trucking company’s negligent hiring and supervision of its truck drivers. See, E.G. Burke, 605 Fed.Supp. 2d at 655 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 29, 2010).
 
The Court’s willingness to consider the plaintiff’s expert opinion with the evidentiary record referenced therein should be carefully considered by defense counsel when deposition testimony is being elicited. Defense counsel’s preparation of a driver for deposition must focus on the alleged risks involved, the driver’s appreciation and understanding of that risk and the driver’s state of mind during the applicable time period. The attendant preparation conference will run much more smoothly if the defense counsel addresses all of these concerns during the initial investigation conference with the driver. Moreover, the Court’s consideration that it is the province of the jury to decide credibility of a witness when that witness is testifying as to his or her state of mind must not be taken lightly. The appreciation of risk by a driver and the driver’s actions based upon that appreciation will for now remain under scrutiny of the jury.
 
In a separate opinion in the same case, Judge Rambo considered motions to bifurcate filed by plaintiffs and defendants. The plaintiff argued for bifurcation into two segments: first, that the jury consider liability for the injuries alleged, whether the defendant’s conduct was recklessly indifferent and then the amount of compensatory damages to be awarded, and then second, that the jury address the amount of punitive damages to award, if any. The defendants, interestingly enough, argued for trifurcation (essentially into three segments): first, that the jury should consider whether the defendants are liable; second, that the jury should consider the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries and the amount of compensatory damages, and then finally, the jury should consider whether punitive damages are warranted. The Court granted the plaintiff’s motion to bifurcate and denied the defendant’s motion to trifurcate (although labeled as a motion to bifurcate). Judge Rambo noted that the over-lying Third Circuit Appellate Court has long held that the separation of issues for trial is not to be routinely ordered, but may be deemed appropriate where the litigation of one issue may eliminate the need to litigate a second issue.
 
Judge Rambo also pointed out that both parties recognized the scope of the injuries the plaintiff allegedly sustained and the possibility of punitive damages could create prejudice against a wealthy company. Evidence of a defendant’s net worth was relevant when presenting evidence on a claim for punitive damages, but is not relevant when presenting damages on the plaintiffs’ tort claims. Ultimately, the Court held that whether the defendants acted with reckless indifference to plaintiffs’ safety is so interwoven with liability that it would most expeditiously be presented during the phase of trial when the plaintiffs’ negligence claims are presented. Accordingly, the jury was to consider whether the defendants acted with a reckless disregard to the rights of the plaintiff before receiving evidence on the extent of punitive damages.
 
The Court further denied the defendants’ request to separate the issue of liability from the issue of the nature and extent of the plaintiffs’ injuries. Judge Rambo opined that every civil trial contains questions of liability and damages and that an indispensable element of every negligent claim is whether the plaintiff sustained actual damages. Again, Judge Rambo did not underestimate the intellectual capacity of a jury or strip it of its responsibility in assigning fault for the accident and determining the extent of the injuries. The Court pointed out that the issues of negligence and consequential damages are inextricably linked and that a bifurcation of the two would create needless repetition of the presentation of evidence and testimony which would cost the Court additional time and resources. Bifurcation of liability from consequential damages is not an economical use of judicial resources. Judge Rambo would not divest the jury of its civic responsibility nor would she expose the Court to what she deemed to be an unthrifty use of the judiciary’s resources.
 
Finally, Judge Rambo rejected the standard defense position that exposure to extensive liability creates prejudice; as to agree with the defendant would then allow every defendant facing large liability for severe injuries sustained as a result of his or her conduct to bifurcate trial into a liability phase and a compensatory damages phase. The Judge did not see the potential for unfair prejudice or an unfair trial, emphasizing that with a proper explanation of the law and adequate jury instructions, the jurors would decide the defendants’ liability based upon the facts and not upon sympathy for the plaintiff’s physical condition.
 
With both of these opinions, Judge Rambo emphasized the Court’s confidence in the trial by jury system. Assessment of credibility as to state of mind shall remain within the power of the jury as is the careful consideration of the evidence, the arguments and the Court’s explanation of the law and its jury instructions.
 

For more information please contact Robert D. MacMahon at rmacmahon@wglaw.com or 215.972.7935.

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