Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Judge Amesbury of Luzerne County Addresses Punitive Damages Claim in MVA Case

The Luzerne Legal Register recently published the Opinion of Sartorio v. Galletti, No. 6847 of 2008 (Luz. Co. May 25, 2010, Amesbury, J.), in which the Court granted the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, thereby dismissing the Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages in a motor vehicle accident case based upon the Defendant driver having been found guilty of violating the Motor Vehicle Code in permitting his vehicle to cross the center line of the roadway and impact the Plaintiff’s vehicle.

In this matter, the Plaintiff had alleged in the Complaint that such conduct by the Defendant was reckless and therefore supported the possibility of an award of punitive damages. Judge Amesbury disagreed.

Judge Amesbury noted that, under Pennsylvania law, it is for the Court, and not a jury, to determine, in the first place, if there is sufficient evidence to establish the mental state required for the imposition of punitive damages.

In this case, the Defendant driver was transporting school children to school when he turned his head to look over his right shoulder for several seconds to check on a student passenger when his vehicle drifted over the center line and struck the Plaintiff’s vehicle. As noted, the Defendant driver was ultimately found guilty of failing to obey a relevant provision of the Motor Vehicle Code.

Judge Amesbury relied upon the case of Martin v. Johns-Manville, 494 A.2d 1088, 1097-1098 (Pa. 1985) in which §908(2) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts was adopted. In that case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that punitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous because of a Defendant’s reckless indifference to the rights of others.

The court also relied upon comment g to §500 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which assists in defining reckless conduct. The Court noted that Pennsylvania jurisprudence in this context has focused the inquiry on the state of the mind of the actor, requiring an evil motive and a conscious choice.

Judge Amesbury ruled that “[m]ere inadvertence, in competency, unskillfullness, or a failure to take precautions, (i.e., pulling off the road to check on the student) to cope with possible or probable future emergencies” only amounted to negligence. Since reckless misconduct requires a conscience choice, Judge Amesbury found that the facts presented in this matter did not rise to the level necessary to support the possibility of an award for punitive damages. As such, he granted the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

Anyone desiring a copy of this Opinion may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net

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