Monday, August 17, 2020

Validity of Punitive Damages Claims in a Trucking Accident Case Addressed


In the case of Decker v. Ramos, No. 15-CV-7078 (C.P. Lacka. Co. July 16, 2020 Nealon, J.), the court addressed a Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment in a trucking accident case. 

The Defendants sought to dismiss the tractor trailer driver as a named party since the employer admitted, for purposes of vicarious liability, that the driver was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. 

The court rejected this summary judgment request of the defense finding that, under the theory of respondeat superior, a primarily liable employee and a vicariously liable employer are not considered to be joint tortfeasors. The court also noted that the goal of vicarious liability is to provide a secondary fund of recovery if the employee-tortfeasor lacks the ability to pay. 

The court noted that Pennsylvania law permits an injured Plaintiff to sue both the primarily liable employee and the vicariously liable employer and to obtain a recovery from either party. The court stated that the defense did not cite any authority to the contrary involving cases where the employer concedes and agency relationship with the employee. As such, the Motion for Summary Judgment was denied in this regard. 

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lacka. Co.
Judge Nealon also addressed other parts of the Motion for Summary Judgment raised by the defense seeking to secure a dismissal of punitive damages claims. 

On the one hand, the defense asserted that they were entitled to summary judgment on the punitive damages claims against the Defendant driver as the Plaintiff did not allege that the driver’s conduct at the time of the accident was reckless. Rather, the Plaintiff based their punitive damages claims against the Defendant tractor trailer driver on the single assertion that the driver had overstated his tractor trailer driving experience on his employment application. 

After finding that their record failed to show any evidence, or even any support for reasonable inference, that the driver knew or should have realized that there was a strong probability that harm to others may result to his misrepresentation on his employment application, the court held that there was insufficient evidence to sustain any punitive damages claim against the driver. As such, the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment was granted by the court in this regard in terms of any punitive damages claims against the tractor trailer driver. 

However, the court denied the Motion for Summary Judgment filed on behalf of the employer/trucking company with respect to the punitive damages claims after reviewing the evidence in the record in this regard. The court noted that, as noted, the record contained evidence that the driver exaggerated the extent of his prior tractor trailer experience on his employment application and there was also evidence that the trucking company allegedly failed to conduct any past employment investigation as required by federal regulations to verify the driver’s prior experience. 

It was also noted that there was evidence in the record that the employer allegedly disregarded industry standards by failing to terminate the driver, or at a minimum, compelling him to undergo remedial training after he was involved in his first preventable crash during his probationary period. It was otherwise noted that the subject accident was the tractor trailer driver’s third collision within his first month of employment with the company. 

The Plaintiff had also alleged in this matter that the employer ignored the federal requirements when the employer continued to allow the driver to operate its tractor trailers allegedly without first completing safety training that was clearly required by law. 

The court also confirmed that the Plaintiff had presented expert opinion evidence that the trucking company’s actions represented a recklessness indifference and reckless disregard to the safety of the motoring public. 

Based upon this evidence in the record, the court denied the defense Motion for Summary Judgment on the punitive damages claims asserted against the trucking company Defendant. 

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

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