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4/11/2018

Matthew McColgan's Article on Punitive Damages in Motor Vehicle Accident

PUNITIVE DAMAGES IN MOTOR VEHICLE ACCIDENT CASES SURVIVE SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN PENNSYLVANIA STATE AND FEDERAL COURTS

Matthew J. McColgan, Esquire
German, Gallagher & Murtagh, P.C.

In two recent cases, trial courts applying Pennsylvania substantive law have denied a defendant driver’s motion for summary judgment and allowed the plaintiffs to present their claims for punitive damages to the factfinder in cases involveding motor vehicle accidents.

One decision was handed down by the Honorable J. Craig Cox of the Lawrence Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania, captioned Hilliard v. Panezich, No. 1988 of 2015 (C.P. Lawrence Co. Dec. 1, 2017 Cox, J.). In Hilliard, defendant, Travis Panezich was at his residence where he had smoked marijuana once at noon on the day of the subject collision. At some point later that day, Panezich was operating a personal vehicle travelling at 55 mph on Stateline Road which had a posted speed limit of 45 mph. At the same time, Plaintiffs Chad and Courtney Hilliard were travelling on State Road 317 with their children. As Panezich approached the intersection of these two streets, he was changing music stations on a cellphone application in his hand and failed to yield to a stop sign governing his direction of travel.

Defendant collided into the Hilliard vehicle at approximately 8:05 p.m. A responding trooper evaluated Panezich and deemed him to be under the influence of a central nervous system depressant and cannabis to such a degree which impaired his ability to safely operate his vehicle, confirmed by a blood test. Panezich testified that he frequently smoked marijuana and would often smoke then drive.

The plaintiffs filed suit against Panezich, among others, making claims of negligence and seeking punitive damages. At the close of discovery, Panezich moved for summary judgment on the punitive damage claims. The Court denied the motion and found there was sufficient evidence to establish Panezich’s reckless indifference. Judge Cox explained that his decision did not rely solely on the distracted driving portion of the plaintiffs’ case, but also on Panezich’s intoxication, reciting that in certain circumstances, evidence of driving under the influence may constitute a sufficient ground allowing the imposition of punitive damages. “The additional indicia of recklessness”, Tthe Court held, “include the lab results indicating intoxication, defendant travelling 10 mph over the posted speed limit, and his failure to observe a posted stop sign. These facts, in conjunction, support the existence of recklessness.”

A second decision was issued by the Honorable James M. Munley of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, captioned  Delamarter v. Couglar and Cargo Transporters, Inc., No. 3:16-CV-665 (M.D. Pa. July 21, 2016Feb. 20, 2018, Munley, J.), which involved a commercial truck driver who allegedly fell asleep at the wheel. On May 2, 2014, at some point just before 5:30 a.m., defendant Couglar was operating a tractor trailer in a one-lane portion of interstate 84 in Pike County, PA while working for Cargo Transporters, Inc. Plaintiff, Eugene Delamarter was operating a pickup truck and was stopped in traffic due to an accident further down the road. Couglar, coming from behind Plaintiff’s stopped vehicle, did not stop his tractor trailer, and rear-ended the plaintiff. Plaintiffs contended that Couglar fell asleep behind the wheel, being the reason he could not bring his tractor trailer safely to a stop. Defendants disputed the notion that Couglar had fallen asleep.

Plaintiffs filed suit against Couglar and his employer, Cargo Transporters, Inc., bringing claims of negligence against both defendants directly, the employer vicariously, and seeking punitive damages against both defendants directly. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the punitive damage claims arguing, inter alia, that punitive damages were not appropriate even if Couglar did fall asleep. The Court denied the motion with respect to the punitive damage claims against the driver directly and the employer vicariously, but granted the motion and dismissed the plaintiffs’ direct claims for punitive damages against the employer.

In finding that whether Couglar’s conduct could be found reckless was a question properly reserved for the jury, the Court recited the  Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s explanation in Bernosky v. Greff,[1] stating that a driver is chargeable with knowledge that an individual in a state of exhaustion is likely to fall asleep. With this backdrop, the Court acknowledged the evidence of record, and referred to a statement in which Couglar’s passenger believed Couglar fell asleep and Couglar himself related he fell asleep or “zoned out”. The Court pointed out that during depositions, the passenger denied ever saying this and Couglar had no memory of the accident. Finally, video footage from within the tractor cab seemed to show Couglar asleep at some point before the accident, though the Court realized the footage was not conclusive.

Therefore, the court determined that the evidence and circumstances of record established that a jury could conclude Couglar knew he was sleepy and continued to drive, ignored the risks of falling asleep and of a large tractor trailer striking much smaller and vulnerable vehicles, and made a conscious decision to ignore the grave danger posed to other motorists and their passengers, such that a jury could reasonably find Couglar acted with reckless indifference. The Court also considered the evidence that Couglar understood his alleged actions violated the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

The Court, however, granted the defendants’ Motion with respect to the plaintiffs’ claims that the employer should be held directly liable for punitive damages. The Court found no evidence that the employer did anything to warrant punitive damages, and held that the mere fact that a citation was issued after the accident does not make it more likely that the company knew the driver was driving while fatigued on the date of the accident. Accordingly, where there was no evidence that the employer had a subjective belief that the driver would operate the truck while fatigued, the company could be not held directly liable for punitive damages.

The Courts appear to have ruled these instances do present more than ordinary claims of negligence. Both Hilliard and Delamarter, in two different contexts, in illustrate how a Court will rely on a multitude of facts adduced to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to allow the punitive damage issue to be presented to the jury.

 

  

 



[1] 38 A.2d 35, 36 (Pa. 1944).

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