Monday, September 19, 2016

Federal Middle District Court Judge Munley Allows Punitive Damages Claims to Proceed in Trucking Accident Case

In his recent decision in the case of Delamarter v. Couglar and Cargo Transporters, Inc., No. 3:16-cv-665 (M.D. Pa. July 21, 2016 Munley, J.), Judge James M. Munley of the United States District Court of the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied a Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss a Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims in a trucking accident case after finding that the Plaintiffs had sufficiently pled such a claim to allow the issue to proceed into discovery.  

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants negligently operated a tractor trailer during which the Defendant driver allegedly fell asleep at the wheel and, therefore, failed to slow down or stop in anticipation of the traffic ahead.   The accident occurred on interstate highway. 

The court noted that, at the time of the accident, there was ongoing construction on the interstate highway that reduced the highway to a single lane.   The Plaintiff had stopped in the construction zone due to an earlier, unrelated accident.  The Defendant tractor trailer driver allegedly fell asleep at the wheel and struck the rear of the Plaintiff’s vehicle during the course of the accident.  

Judge Munley reviewed the standard for a federal court Motion to Dismiss along with the current status of the law pertaining to punitive damages and found, in part, that other courts have ruled that violations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, coupled with allegations of a conscious disregard for the safety and rights of others, is sufficient to properly assert a claim for punitive damages.   

Here, the Plaintiff alleged that the tractor trailer driver acted recklessly by driving while fatigued and while falling asleep, which allegedly amounted to outrageous conduct on the part of the tractor trailer driver.   The Plaintiff further asserted that the tractor trailer driver’s reckless conduct violated various federal and state statutes.   Accordingly, the court found that such allegations were sufficient to allow the claims for punitive damages to proceed against the tractor trailer driver.  

With regards to the tractor trailer company, the Plaintiff pled that the company entrusted a tractor trailer to the tractor trailer driver without ascertaining his ability to operate the vehicle safely despite the obvious risk of highly probable harm that could follow.  The Plaintiff additionally asserted that the tractor trailer company allowed the driver drive the vehicle when the company knew or should have known that the driver was too fatigued to drive, which constituted a violation of federal statutes.  

In his Opinion, Judge Munley denied the Motion to Dismiss but noted that the Defendants could revisit this issue at the Motion for Summary Judgment stage.    

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.   

I send thanks to Attorney James J. Conaboy of the Scranton law firm of Abrahamsen, Conaboy and Abrahamsen for bringing this case to my attention.  

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