Can I Recover Punitive Damages in an 18-Wheeler Accident?

Posted in truck accident on October 1, 2020

Can I Recover Punitive Damages in 18-Wheeler Accident?

The answer depends on the actions of the trucking company and its driver, and a recent case provides an explanation.

In a case arising from a 2016 accident involving an accident victim (Plaintiff) who was driving a car and Yevgeny Garkusha who was driving a semi for Quality Logistics, the question of punitive damages was discussed.

Just before entering the intersection where the accident happened, the truck driver Garkusha took his eyes off the road and looked at his GPS or at one of his mirrors. When he looked back at the road, he saw the traffic light was red, but he ran the red light and hit Plaintiff’s car. Plaintiff sued Garkusha and his employer, alleging negligence and negligence per se, punitive damages, as well as negligent hiring, supervision, and entrustment.

Garkusha first got a commercial driver’s license (“CDL”) in Oregon in 2015, then transferred his it to Washington a few months later. His Washington CDL had an issue date of the day before he applied for employment with Quality Logistics.

As part of the hiring process, the trucking company reviewed just his Washington driving record. They obtained his driving record from the state of Washington as required by federal law. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act states the qualifications for commercial truck drivers and specifies the investigation employers must conduct upon hiring a new driver and what documents must be retained in an employee’s driver qualification file. One of these requirements is that the employer obtain the driver’s driving records for the past three years from each state where he held or holds a license. Quality Logistics obtained just one year’s worth of records for Garkusha.

Quality Logistics argued that Plaintiff failed to show that it was more than negligent or grossly negligent in hiring and supervising Garkusha. Also, the driver claimed Plaintiff presented no evidence suggesting his conduct met the level of culpability for punitive damages. Plaintiff responded that Quality Logistics’ “intentional violations” of its own internal policies and federal regulations regarding driver qualification, hiring, entrustment, and supervision, at a minimum, created a jury question on the issue of punitive damages.

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive or exemplary damages are awarded when a defendant found guilty of committing a wrong or offense and is ordered to pay in addition to compensatory damages.

In this case, federal district Judge Michael L. Brown explained that punitive damages are not intended to compensate a plaintiff, but are awarded “solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.” Georgia law states:

Punitive damages may be awarded only in such 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. A good Atlanta truck lawyer Atlanta residents trust will know when, and when not, to plead pursue punitive damages.

To satisfy this high standard, Judge Brown explained that a plaintiff must show “circumstances of aggravation or outrage, such as spite or malice, or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that the conduct may be called willful or wanton.” Negligence—even gross negligence—is enough to support a punitive damages award, the judge said.

The judge went on to explain that punitive damages aren’t recoverable in automobile collision cases when a driver simply violates a rule of the road. Punitive damages are only recoverable where the collision resulted from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as pattern or policy that includes a driving history of several DUIs, excessive speed, striking vehicle twice, driving 20 miles with serious mechanical difficulties, and a DUI in conjunction with numerous traffic safety violations.

The alleged willful misconduct or aggravating circumstances must also relate to the tort alleged. Whether the tort was sufficiently aggravating to authorize punitive damages is generally a jury question. However, when a plaintiff fails to establish a question of fact that a defendant’s conduct was either willful or consciously indifferent to the consequences, a court may grant summary judgment.

Punitive Damages Claims Against the Trucking Company

Quality Logistics said that Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages based on its alleged negligent hiring, supervision, or entrustment, should be dismissed, arguing its conduct (even if negligent or grossly negligent) wasn’t so outrageous as to allow punitive damages. Judge Brown found that Plaintiff must produce evidence from which a jury could infer that the trucking company’s actions showed a conscious indifference to the consequences. Plaintiff could do this “by showing that an employer had actual knowledge of numerous and serious violations on its driver’s record, or, at the very least, when the employer has flouted a legal duty to check a record showing violations.”

Judge Brown found that Plaintiff didn’t present any evidence that Quality Logistics had actual knowledge of its driver’s driving infractions. The trucking company pulled his Washington driving record in late October 2015 before hiring him, and it showed no violations, convictions, or accidents currently on file. However, the judge said the “flouting a legal duty” part of the test is a much closer call and that it was a question for the  jury. The judge quoted the Georgia Court of Appeals which said “[w]here the owner has a statutory duty to check on the driver’s qualifications, the defendant would be precluded from the defense that it did not have actual knowledge of such incompetence on the part of the driver.”

The Trucking Company Said They Did Check His Driving Record

Quality Logistics argued that it pulled Garkusha’s Washington driving record which showed nothing. Judge Brown said that was “of little surprise considering he only obtained that license two days before Quality Logistics pulled the record.”

In fact, the trucking company reviewed only an abstract of his commercial driver’s record, rather than his complete Washington driver’s record. Federal law requires a review of the driver’s motor vehicle record for any state in which he had a license in the prior three years. In light of this, Quality Logistics conceded that it should’ve obtained Garkusha’s Oregon driving record for the past three years. If it had done what federal law required, the trucking company would have reviewed Garkusha’s complete driving record for both Washington and Oregon and learned of his prior citations in both states for excessive speeding, driving with a suspended license, and DUIs. This certainly would also have caused Quality Logistics to know that Garkusha lied in his application for employment.

Quality Logistics argued that it didn’t matter because there was no evidence that the accident arose from Garkusha’s excessive speed or other violations. But the judge explained that Georgia law doesn’t require such an identicalness of circumstances. Garkusha’s prior driving infractions (most notably the speeding and failure to yield) showed his recklessness and carelessness behind the wheel of a car. The judge went on to opine:

“They may have manifested in specific citations but they show the failure to exercise appropriate care while driving. They show a history of many serious violations that — when considered with his lies — could, and likely should, have put Quality Logistics on notice that he was incompetent to drive its trucks.”

As a result, the court held that from the evidence presented, a jury could conclude Quality Logistics flouted its legal duty to conduct due diligence into Garkusha’s driving background before hiring him and thus acted with such conscious indifference to the consequences of his actions.

Thus, Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages against the trucking company could move forward.

Punitive Damages Claim Against the Truck Driver

Plaintiff also sought punitive damages from Garkusha, but he only asserted that the driver engaged in fraudulent behavior to obtain his CDL. However, the record contained nothing to support this argument. Even if Plaintiff had provided evidence, the judge found that there was no evidence that the driver acted with such a willful and wanton lack of care during this collision that would make this the appropriate case for punitive damages.

Judge Brown said at worst, “Garkusha blew through a red light and improperly entered the intersection.” While this may have been negligent, even grossly negligent, it didn’t rise to the level of culpability necessary to impose punitive damages.

Plaintiff didn’t claim that Garkusha deliberately or wantonly ran the light and caused the crash. There also was no evidence Garkusha’s prior driving infractions related to similar occurrences so that “the accident result[ed] from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving.”

Garkusha wasn’t convicted of any driving violations while operating a commercial motor vehicle for Quality Logistics before the crash. Plaintiff thus failed to provide clear and convincing evidence that — right before and during this accident — Garkusha exhibited a related pattern of dangerous driving or showed a conscious indifference to consequences.

As a result, the judge dismissed Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim against Defendant Garkusha. Ferguson v. Yevgeny V. Garkusha. 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146632 (N.D. Ga. August 14, 2020).

Takeaway

To be awarded punitive damages in a Georgia tractor-trailer action against a driver and his or her employer, an accident victim must show that the defendant’s actions exhibited “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”

You should work with an experienced Atlanta truck accident attorney if you’ve suffered serious injuries in a truck accident. Contact Tobin Injury Law, and we will work to get you the compensation you deserve, including compensation for property damage. With our experience and skills, we know what to look for when suing a trucking company.

You can contact an experienced Atlanta truck accident lawyer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or using our online contact form. Tobin Injury Law offers free consultations and will be glad to answer your questions.