Court Strikes Punitives Claim in Auto Case

Deborah Elkins//July 5, 2016

Court Strikes Punitives Claim in Auto Case

Deborah Elkins//July 5, 2016

An assertion that defendant is a “life-long opiate addict” who knew his withdrawal symptoms during the 48 hours prior to his traffic accident would include confusion, distractability and “overall impairment of driving ability,” does not state a common law claim for punitive damages, an Augusta County Circuit Court says.

We are dealing here with a common law claim for punitive damages, not a statutory one. I say that because the most recent case decided on this issue is Cain v. Lee, 290 Va. 129 (2015), and because plaintiff cites the case for the wrong proposition. Cain involved the application of Va. Code § 8.01-44.5, which authorizes an award of punitive damages if certain criteria are established. However, neither that case nor Code § 8.01-44.5 have any application to this case because plaintiff cannot assert a claim based on the statute.

Common law standard

I have read all of the cases to which the parties have directed me and I have assessed all in light of a claim for punitive damages at common law. There is a thread that runs through them and, using that thread, it appears that one may weave a canvas on which to paint the terms of a unifying principal that connects the holdings in all of them. That standard (which consistently describes a “conscious disregard of the rights of others”), as applied by the Supreme Court, demands that the defendant harbor some cognizable sense that his conduct or condition poses a risk to others. Moreover, the thread that seems to tie it all together is that the defendant recognizes, after he has begun driving, that his conduct or condition creates the risk and that his recognition be based on empirical evidence and not merely a recognition of his own physical or mental impairment. That is, none of the cases approve a finding of punitive damages when the claim is based on defendant’s initial decision to drive while intoxicated or when he is sleepy or when he has night blindness. All of the cases which affirm the issue of punitive damages being submitted to the fact finder or which approve the award of punitive damages involve events that occurred after the defendant was behind the wheel (e.g., weaving, colliding with other vehicles, falling asleep) because it is events that occurred while he was driving that should have resulted in his conscious recognition of the egregious nature of his conduct.

In the case at bar, defendant elected to drive with a monster of a headache, but there is nothing to indicate that, once he began driving, there was any event that caused him to realize that his condition had a significant negative impact on his driving. There is no allegation that there was any external event that alerted him to the fact that his ability to drive was impaired or that his conduct was in conscious disregard of the rights of others. Defendant’s driving with knowledge of the potential effect of his withdrawal symptoms is indistinguishable from the defendant who drives while knowing he is under the influence of alcohol and that is insufficient to justify an award of punitive damages.

Carpenter v. Hawkins (Ludwig) No. CL 15001622-00, June 14, 2016; Augusta County Cir.Ct.; Brian K. Brake, John P. Cattano, Robert G. Harrington, Tate C. Love for the parties. VLW 016-8-076, 6 pp.

VLW 016-8-076


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