We often are asked: “What am I able to win in my truck accident case?” In a recent case, a truck driver and his trucking company asked a Georgia court to dismiss the case against them for the plaintiffs’ claims for lost profits, punitive damages, bad faith attorney’s fees, and negligence per se.
The Details of the Accident
Teddy Castleberry was in a motor vehicle accident with a tractor-trailer operated by the defendant in December 2017. On the date of the accident, the semi driver was making a delivery to Cash Liquidations, a business in Monroe County, Georgia.
Cash Liquidations unloaded trucks on a first-come, first-served basis, and the truck driver was told the business opened at 10 a.m. However, the defendant arrived at Cash Liquidations on the day of the accident at 6:30 a.m.—three and a half hours early. As a result, his was the first truck to arrive, and because he wanted to make sure his trailer would be the first unloaded, he parked along the road outside of the entrance to the business
The truck driver was aware that his trailer was partially parked in the road, and he even testified that he parked next to a no parking sign because he “wanted to be sure [he] was the first in line.” About two hours after he arrived, and with his trailer still parked in the road, the plaintiff drove his vehicle into the trailer, which was allegedly indiscernible because of the position of the sun.
The Court’s Opinion
Chief Judge Marc T. Treadwell, United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia examined each of the plaintiff’s claims:
The plaintiffs claimed that because of the accident, the plaintiff couldn’t work and thus his restaurant lost profits. But the defendants contended that the plaintiffs failed to provide the evidence necessary for a jury to award lost profit damages. Specifically, they argued that relevant tax records established that his restaurant was operating at a net loss in the years immediately before the semi accident. As a result, lost profit damages were inappropriate in this case, they said.
Chief Judge Treadwell explained that under Georgia law, a plaintiff may recover lost business profits if the business has a proven track record of profitability. But if a business does not have a history of profitability, lost profits are too speculative to be awarded. So, a plaintiff seeking lost profits must produce evidence of lost net profits—lost gross profits are insufficient.
Here, there was no evidence tending to prove a track record of net profitability of the plaintiff’s business; in fact, the tax returns showed that in the three full years prior to the accident, the business only returned a net profit in 2014. In the other two years, the plaintiff reported net losses. Because the plaintiffs didn’t support their claim with evidence from which a jury could calculate lost profits without resorting to guesswork, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the issue was granted.
The plaintiffs asserted a claim for punitive damages pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. The judge said that punitive damages are available in “tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences, quoting O.C.G.A. § 15-12-5.1. Further, the judge noted that the Georgia Supreme Court has held that negligence, even gross negligence, is inadequate to support a punitive damage award. But in motor vehicle accident cases, punitive damages aren’t recoverable where the driver at fault simply violated a rule of the road.
The plaintiffs argued that the truck driver completely disregarded the rights of other travelers by parking his truck partially in the road for his own convenience. Specifically, the plaintiffs pointed to his testimony that he parked directly beside a no parking sign and didn’t consider parking anywhere else because he wanted his trailer to be unloaded first when the business opened.
The defendants responded that this was a straightforward motor vehicle accident case, and, at most, the semi driver was merely negligent. They also argued that there was no evidence of aggravating factors here that could support an award of punitive damages, and that even if the big rig driver violated a rule of the road, that wasn’t enough for an award of punitive damages.
However, Chief Judge Treadwell found that despite the defendants’ arguments, there was enough evidence to create a jury question as to whether the semi driver intentionally violated the rules of the road. Based on the evidence, a reasonable jury could conclude that the driver’s actions exhibited willful misconduct and that the plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages. Therefore, the judge denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim.
The plaintiffs also asserted a claim for attorney’s fees under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. Chief Judge Treadwell said that Georgia law allows attorney’s fees when the “defendant has acted in bad faith, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense,” citing O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11.
Here, the plaintiffs sought attorney fees because of the truck driver’s alleged bad faith. Chief Judge Treadwell explained that bad faith in this context refers to the “dealings out of which the cause of action arose, rather than bad faith in defending or resisting the claim after the cause of action has already arisen,” quoting a Georgia Court of Appeals decision. The judge went on to opine that bad faith requires more than bad judgment or negligence. Instead, the statute imports a “dishonest purpose” or some “moral obliquity” and implies “conscious doing of wrong” and a “breach of known duty through some motive of interest of ill will.”
The judge found that based on the evidence, a reasonable jury could find that the driver of the 18-wheeler acted with bad faith and that the plaintiffs were entitled to attorney’s fees. Thus, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees claim was denied.
Negligence Per Se
The plaintiffs allege that the defendants were liable per se by failing to place warning devices in the road as required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs). The regulation states:
Whenever a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion of a highway or the shoulder of a highway for any cause other than necessary traffic stops, the driver of the stopped commercial motor vehicle shall immediately activate the vehicular hazard warning signal flashers and continue the flashing until the driver places the warning devices required by . . . this section.
The regulation requires two warning devices in the direction of approaching traffic and one warning device in the direction away from approaching traffic. Plus, the driver needs to put out warning cones behind the parked tractor (or trailer) at certain distances.
The defendants argued that negligence per se was inapplicable because the plaintiffs presented no evidence that the truck driver didn’t place warning devices in compliance with the FMCSRs. But the plaintiff pointed to his discovery response where he stated that the driver “failed to place warning signs, turn on his hazard lights, or otherwise warn drivers that he was parked in the roadway.” Also, and assuming the semi driver placed a warning sign, it’s disputed whether he placed the signs properly. Because of this evidence, the Court cannot rule as a matter of law that Thomas properly placed warning devices as required by the FMCSRs. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ negligence per se claim was denied.
The defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment was thus granted in part and denied in part. The plaintiffs’ claim for lost profits is dismissed, but the remaining claims were permitted to proceed to trial. Castleberry v. Thomas, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 195868 (M.D. Ga. October 12, 2021).
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