Many automobile accidents are simply the result of unfortunate circumstances or a simple failure to observe safe driving practices. But there are cases—notably those involving drunk drivers—where an accident is the result of someone's reckless disregard for the lives and safety of other persons. In such cases New York law may permit the awarding of punitive damages. These are damages designed not to compensate a victim for his or her injuries, but to punish reckless conduct and deter others from doing the same. A recent decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department, illustrates the circumstances where a court may choose to award punitive damages.
Chiara v. Dernago
In May 2005, a delivery truck driver decided to stop along his route and drink at a New Jersey bar. By his own admission, he consumed upwards of ten beers. A short time after leaving the bar, he was driving erratically on the George Washington Bridge, and eventually he rear-ended a pickup truck. The truck was propelled by the collision into another vehicle, seriously injuring several passengers. The delivery truck driver was found to have a blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit under New York law. The driver subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.
The injured passengers separately filed a civil lawsuit in Nassau County Supreme Court against the delivery truck driver and his employer. One of the plaintiffs settled before trial, but the other proceeded to try the case before a jury. The jury held the driver was negligent, and his negligence was a “substantial factor” in causing the accident. The judge then instructed the jury to determine whether or not to award punitive damages. In order to award punitive damages under New York law, a jury must find “by clear and convincing evidence” the defendant's actions were “wanton, reckless, and representative of a high degree of immorality.” The jury decided the driver's actions fell within this description and awarded the plaintiff $70,000 in punitive damages, in addition to $160,000 in compensatory damages against the driver and his employer.
The defendants challenged the verdicts on both liability and damages. But in a May 27 decision, the Second Department upheld the jury's determinations on all issues. With respect to liability, the defendants' arguments boiled down to a conflict over expert testimony. The plaintiff's physician testified she suffered a serious spinal injury as a result of the accident. The defendants presented their own experts to rebut this testimony. Ultimately, the jury simply believed the plaintiff's expert was more credible, and the Second Department said it would not second-guess the jury on that issue.
Likewise, the Second Department said there was sufficient evidence presented for the jury to award punitive damages against the driver. Driving while intoxicated is not, by itself, sufficient to justify punitive damages, but the appeals court said it can be considered in conjunction with “additional evidence” of a defendant's “wanton and reckless” conduct which demonstrates “an utter disregard for the safety of others.” Here, the driver admitted to drinking several beers before driving on the road and causing a multi-car accident on the George Washington Bridge. Furthermore, he was “essentially incoherent at the scene of the accident” to the point where he could not even recall taking a sobriety test—which he failed. All of these factors taken together supported the jury's decision to award punitive damages, the appeals court said.
Again, it bears repeating that not every act of negligence gives rise to a punitive damage claim. That is why if you have been in a motor vehicle accident and need advice on what types of damages you may be entitled to, it is important you speak with a qualified New York personal injury lawyer. Contact our office today if you have any questions or concerns.