Asserting Punitive Damages in Truck Accident Cases

Our Orlando truck accident attorneys discuss how punitive damages are typically are asserted in truck accident cases.

Punitive damages typically are asserted in truck accident cases. This is because the conduct of truckers and trucking companies – the defendants – often fits the limited circumstances in which Florida law allows punitive damages to be awarded in claims against individuals and their corporate employers.

If the accident victim, or plaintiff, prevails on the punitive damages claim, it can add significantly to the total amount awarded in a lawsuit.

Here are a few important facts you should know about asserting punitive damages in truck accident cases in Florida:

  1. Punitive damages are different than compensatory damages.

Compensatory damages are intended to make a plaintiff “whole.” For instance, they are aimed at compensating an accident victim for medical expenses, lost income and pain and suffering caused by a collision with a tractor-trailer.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are meant to punish a defendant and to deter the defendant – and, presumably, others in the same position – from repeating such misconduct in the future.

  1. A complaint can be amended to include a punitive damages claim.

A truck accident lawsuit is initiated by the filing of a complaint (typically in the county where the accident happened). Florida law allows this complaint to be changed, or amended, to add a claim for punitive damages.

To add the punitive damages claim, a plaintiff must show there is a “reasonable basis for recovery” of the damages. A plaintiff can seek evidence through a process called “discovery” that is directly aimed at establishing this basis.

Typically, a defendant will object to adding a punitive damages claim. This requires a hearing to be held. (See this video our firm recently posted to our Facebook page, showing attorney Frank M. Eidson as he walked into the Circuit Civil Court in West Palm Beach for such a hearing.)

  1. Punitive damages are awarded only if there is proof of “intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence.”

To recover punitive damages, a plaintiff must show that a defendant personally engaged in one of two categories of conduct:

  • Intentional misconduct – The defendant had actual knowledge that his or her conduct was wrong, and that it carried a high probability of resulting in injury or damage. Despite this knowledge, the defendant engaged in the conduct anyway and, in fact, caused injury or damage.
  • Gross negligence – The defendant’s conduct was “so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.”

In truck accident cases, the conduct at issue usually falls in the second category.

  1. A truck driver can engage in “gross negligence,” supporting a punitive damages award.

“Gross negligence” often is established in truck accident cases based on the truck driver’s pattern of violating state and federal safety regulations and other traffic laws. For example:

  • A truck driver routinely fails to update or falsifies his driving hours in his logbook, allowing him to violate federal rules that limit driving time and which are aimed at preventing fatigued driving accidents. (These are called hours-of-service regulations.)
  • A truck driver whose vehicle breaks down fails to put out emergency signs, cones or triangles, warning other drivers of the truck’s presence on the side of the road (or sticking out into the road).
  • A truck driver with a history of drunk driving convictions commits an accident because he was impaired by alcohol or drugs while behind the wheel of his rig.
  1. A trucking company can be held liable for punitive damages as well.

Under Florida law, a trucking company can be held liable for punitive damages based on the conduct of one of its drivers. In addition to showing that the driver was engaged in “intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence,” a plaintiff must also show that an officer, director or manager of the trucking company:

  • Actively and knowingly participated in the conduct
  • Knowingly condoned, ratified or consented to the conduct
  • Engaged in conduct that constituted gross negligence and contributed to the losses, injuries and damages suffered by the plaintiff.

In most cases, this is established through evidence that the trucking company hired a driver who had no business being behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer, failed to properly supervise the driver or actually encouraged the misconduct. For example:

  • The trucking company failed to check the driver’s record before hiring him. As a result, the company failed to discover that he had a history of causing accidents or a record of speeding tickets or drunk driving convictions.
  • The trucking company turned a blind eye to the driver’s falsification of his logbooks and violations of the hours-of-service regulations.
  • The trucking company failed to inspect the vehicles in its fleet or allowed a truck to be on the road despite knowing that it had “soft brakes” or worn tires.
  • The trucking company set unreasonable delivery deadlines, forcing its truckers to violate hours-of-service regulations.
  1. Punitive damages in a truck accident case may be capped.

If a punitive damages claim is established in a truck accident case, the amount awarded would most likely be capped.

Under Florida law, punitive damages are limited to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000 – whichever is greater.

If it can be shown that the trucking company was “motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain,” and the company actually knew of the “unreasonably dangerous nature of the conduct” and “high likelihood of injury” resulting from it, the cap would be higher. The cap would be set at four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million – whichever is greater. (It is actually easy to imagine situations in which this situation could arise in truck accident cases.)

In rare cases, no cap would be placed on the punitive damages award. This would arise only if it could be shown that the trucker or trucking company acted with “specific intent to harm.” An example might be a road rage incident.

  1. Your attorney’s role is to seek a maximum recovery after a truck accident, including punitive damages.

When your attorney investigates your truck accident case, the attorney’s goal should be to maximize the amount you recover. This means your attorney should go beyond seeking compensatory damages and, where warranted, seek a recovery of punitive damages as well.

If you would like to learn more about seeking damages in a truck accident case that has impacted you or a family member, please feel free to contact Frank M. Eidson, P.A. We can provide a free consultation about your case.