In my years of litigating trucking accident cases, I have frequently found that punitive damages provide a fantastic opportunity to increase the value of the case, particularly where there are uncertainties regarding liability and proof of damages. By asserting a claim for punitive damages, I have found that I am often able to effectively shift focus from the inherent weaknesses of my claim to the inadequacy or recklessness of the policies and procedures of the defendant trucking company. However, it is vital that steps are taken early on in the litigation process for the purpose of laying the proper framework for a punitive damages claim.
It is important to conduct an exhaustive investigation into the policies and practices of the trucking company that is being sued at an early stage in the litigation. The primary goal of this investigation should be to uncover any and all practices that may be construed as “malicious, wanton, reckless, willful or oppressive,” or practices that exhibit “reckless indifference to the rights of others” thereby subjecting the trucking company to punitive damages. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 908(1) and (2); Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. v. Genteel, 499 A.2d 637 (Pa. Super. 1985). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that an award of punitive damages is appropriate where an “actor knows, or has reason to know, of facts which create a high degree of risk or personal harm to another and deliberately proceeds to act in conscious disregard of the risk.” Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 494 A.2d 1088 (Pa. 1985).
Many times the types of practices that subject a trucking company to punitive damages can be found in the training or lack thereof that the trucking company has provided to the driver of the truck at issue. Upon investigation, it is not at all uncommon to find that a trucking company has failed to adequately train an inexperienced driver before allowing them to operate a tractor-trailer. This simple lack of adequate training may be enough to support a claim of punitive damages. For example, in George v. Caravan Exp., Inc., 1990 WL 357318 (Pa.Com.Pl. 1990), the court denied defendant’s preliminary objection to plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, stating that “[i]nstructing an untrained employee to operate a tractor-trailer combination on the winding, twisting highways in this county would unquestionably be reckless and egregious conduct.” Id. at 2.