Friday, March 9, 2018

Punitive Damages Claim Allowed to Proceed Where Tractor Trailer Driver Allegedly Fell Asleep At Wheel

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 granted in part and denied a Defendant’s Motion For Summary Judgment relative to a Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims in a trucking accident case.  The court also denied the Defendant's Motion to Bifurcate the trial with respect to the punitive damages claims.  

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 rear end 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.  

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.   

In reviewing the record, the court pointed to facts brought to light during discovery that raised issues of fact as to whether the Defendant acted recklessly.  In particular, the court noted that there were facts discovered that could support the Plaintiff's argument that the Defendant tractor trailer driver was fatigued, had possibly fallen asleep at the wheel immediately before the accident, and that the tractor trailer driver appreciated the risk posed to others on the highway by his driving in a fatigued state. 

Accordingly, the court found that such issues of material fact were sufficient to allow the claims for punitive damages to proceed against the tractor trailer driver.  

Judge Munley also ruled that the Defendant tractor trailer driver's employer could be held vicariously liable for punitive damages if the tractor trailer driver was hit with such damages by the jury.

However, the court granted the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment with regards to the Plaintiff's direct claim against the tractor trailer driver's employer for punitive damages.  The court ruled that there was no evidence presented to establish that the employer knew, or should have known, that its tractor trailer driver would drive in a fatigued state at the time the accident occurred.

Anyone wishing to review this decision by Judge James Munley may click this LINK.

Judge Munley's prior decision on similar issues in the case at the Motion to Dismiss stage can be viewed in this TORT TALK Blog Post, which also contains a Link to that prior decision.

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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