Deborah Elkins//December 28, 2012
Deborah Elkins//December 28, 2012//
A Lynchburg federal court balked at endorsing a punitives claim last August, but a second try at pleading punitive damages worked for Blanche Madison, suing for the wrongful death of her husband Edgar Madison.
On his earlier review of the claim, Lynchburg U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon said the Supreme Court of Virginia has not been inclined to award punitive damages, even in extraordinary motor vehicle cases. Moon said the fact that the commercial driver in the Lynchburg case had received five traffic summonses, including a citation for reckless driving, was not enough to make this case
Moon’s assessment of Virginia’s distaste for punitive damages in auto-accident cases had not changed when he examined Madison’s amended complaint on Dec. 12. But this time, Madison asserted that the defendant driver, Medardo Acuna, had fallen asleep at the wheel of his truck, despite a prior citation for violating a national rule against driving more than 14 consecutive hours.
The asleep-at-the-wheel allegation was enough to nudge the punitives claim across the starting line.
Madison alleged that Acuna was driving southwest on State Route 42 in Rockbridge County on July 6, hauling commercial goods for defendant Coastal Sunbelt Produce Company from Maryland to Virginia. She alleged Acuna fell asleep while driving and his truck crossed the highway’s solid double-yellow line and struck a pickup truck in which her husband was a passenger.
According to Madison, Acuna had traveled that route three times a week in his past four years driving for Coastal, and all the defendants were aware of the length of the trip, the narrow and winding road and the fact that the two-axle truck Acuna drove was difficult to stop.
During the time he had driven for Coastal, using trucks leased from defendant Metro Truck and Tractor Lease Inc., Acuna had been stopped by police three times, resulting in five summonses, including a citation for reckless driving and failure to maintain control resulting in an accident, according to the complaint.
Acuna also had been cited for violating the 14-hour rule, Madison alleged, a federal regulation providing that truck drivers cannot drive beyond the 14th consecutive hour after coming on duty, following 10 consecutive hours off duty.
Madison alleged the defendants allowed Acuna to continue driving in a sleep-deprived condition, knowing he could cause serious death or injury to others if he fell asleep while driving a heavy truck.
Moon reiterated that Virginia courts are reluctant to allow punitive damages in run-of-the-mill personal injury cases, and that the Supreme Court of Virginia has stated that punitive damages should be awarded only in cases involving the most egregious conduct. Madison highlighted cases that permitted punitive damages claims to advance against professional drivers involved in motor vehicle accidents.
The federal judge analyzed state cases going both ways and said it was significant that the amended complaint alleged the driver “had previously received during his tenure as a driver for Coastal a summons for violating the fourteen-hour rule for commercial truck drivers, which is intended to prevent commercial drivers from operating their vehicles while sleep-deprived.”
That allegation brought Madison’s complaint close enough to a 1999 case, Alfonso v. Robinson, which involved a commercial driver’s failure to set up flares following a breakdown, and similar cases, for the punitives claim to survive.
A reasonable jury could find the driver here similarly engaged in conduct about which he had been specifically warned, and by doing so, he acted willfully and wantonly, Moon concluded.
Although he refused to dismiss the punitive damages claim against the driver, he granted Coastal’s motion to dismiss a punitives claim against the employer. Even if Coastal was aware of Acuna’s driving record, its knowledge that he received summonses and violated the 14-hour rule in the past was not enough to demonstrate the company showed reckless disregard for the safety of others, the court said in Madison v. Acuna (VLW 012-3-620).
The court also dismissed Madison’s claims against the truck lessor, Metro, including a claim for negligent entrustment. Holding a lessor liable for negligent entrustment would amount to a requirement that it ask lessees to fire drivers with traffic violations or risk liability every time there was an accident.