Punitive Damages in Trucking Cases

The threat of personal injury litigation is constant for trucking companies. Each time a tractor-trailer hits the open road, trucking companies expose themselves to an unpredictable amount of risk.  In addition to seeking compensatory damages, plaintiffs often seek punitive damages in an attempt to maximize their recovery.

The rationale behind awarding punitive damages is to protect the public by punishing the defendant and deterring other individuals from repeating the defendant’s behavior. In Virginia, punitive damages are only proper when a defendant’s actions rise to the level of “willful or wanton” negligence.  This is defined as any “action undertaken in conscious disregard of another’s rights, or with reckless indifference to consequences with the defendant aware, from his knowledge of existing circumstances and conditions, that his conduct probably would cause injury to another.” Madison v. Acuna, No. 6:12-cv-00028, 2012 WL 6196450 at *3 (Dec. 12, 2012 W.D. Va.).  The Supreme Court of Virginia has “repeatedly stated that an award of punitive damages is not favored generally because punitive damages are in the nature of a penalty and should be awarded only in cases involving the most egregious conduct.” Id. One case, however, potentially paves an easier path for plaintiffs to succeed on claims for punitive damages in trucking cases.

In Alfonso v. Robinson, 257 Va. 540 (1999), Anthony Alfonso was operating a tractor-trailer on Interstate 95 when his truck stalled on a dark stretch of highway and came to rest in the right travel lane near a rest area.  Alfonso left his truck for a few minutes to summon help at the rest area.  There was a factual dispute as to whether there were any lights in operation on the tractor-trailer.  Nevertheless, a passenger van driven by Darlene Robinson struck the rear of Alfonso’s trailer.  Robinson was seriously injured in the accident.

After a plaintiff’s verdict, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia to determine whether the trial court had erred in instructing the jury on the issue of willful and wanton negligence. In its analysis, the Court focused on the fact that Alfonso was a professional truck driver and the accident was caused, in part, by his failure to set out safety flares and reflective triangles as he had been trained.  The Court held that, in light of Alfonso’s advanced training and specifically his knowledge that the failure to display flares or triangles could cause an accident, there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that his failure to follow proper safety protocols amounted to willful and wanton conduct.

Over the past several years, Alfonso has been cited numerous times to support the proposition that allegations of a truck driver’s failure to adhere to his safety training are sufficient to allow a claim for punitive damages to reach the jury.  In light of the extensive training that tractor-trailer drivers receive, this development is significant.  A capable plaintiff’s attorney could argue that almost any negligent conduct performed by a driver was contrary to his specialized training, and thus open to a determination on punitive damages under Alfonso.

Fortunately, at least two recent cases involving trucking accidents from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia indicate that courts may be unwilling to find general allegations of willful and wanton conduct sufficient to support claims for punitive damages. Instead, these courts looked past the complaint’s boilerplate language to determine whether the pleadings contained specific facts of egregious conduct that were a cause of the accident.

In Madison v. Acuna, No. 6:12-cv-00028, 2012 WL 4458510 (Aug. 28, 2012, W.D. Va.), the Court dismissed a plaintiff’s claim when the only allegation supporting punitive damages was that the defendant acted “willfully and wantonly.” Id. at *6.  Although the Court indicated that such conclusory allegations were not enough to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff was allowed to amend her complaint.  When she did so, she survived a motion to dismiss by alleging the accident was caused when the driver fell asleep at the wheel after he had been previously warned about the dangers of driving while sleep deprived. (Madison v. Acuna, No. 6:12-cv-00028, 2012 WL 6196450 (Dec. 12, 2012 W.D. Va.)).

Likewise, in Boone v. Brown, No. 7:13-cv-000230, 2013 WL 5416873 (Sept. 26, 2013, W.D. Va.), the court concentrated its analysis on whether the plaintiff alleged any specific facts that established the defendant’s conduct rose to the level of willful or wanton negligence.  The plaintiff claimed punitive damages were appropriate based on allegations that the defendant had collided with her vehicle three times while making an improper right turn, and then left the scene following the collision.  Citing the decision in Acuna, the Court reasoned that because the plaintiff did not allege “that [the defendant] had been specifically warned about the dangers of making wide right turns,” it could not be found that defendant “consciously disregarded the rights of others and acted with reckless indifference to the consequences of his actions.” Id. at 3.  Instead, the Court held that punitive damages were not proper because the plaintiff’s complaint “merely offer[ed] facts consistent with a routine traffic accident.” Id.

In summary, while punitive damages are typically disfavored by Virginia courts, the Alfonso case has opened the door for plaintiffs to seek these exemplary damages against trucking companies.  Recent decisions, however, have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to survive a motion to dismiss a punitive damages claim when their complaints merely state cursory allegations of willful and wanton conduct.  The key is to attack the non-specific claims for punitive damages at the pleading stage of litigation.  If the punitive damages claim survives a motion to dismiss, early discovery should be conducted in order to flush out the basis for more specific allegations to determine whether the alleged wrongful conduct was a cause of the accident.