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Truck lawyer tip: How pleading punitive damages in your complaint can explode the value of your accident case

Written by Steve Gursten Posted June 13th, 2014

Pleading punitive damages at the beginning of your case will open the door to discovery and evidence the defendant trucking company might otherwise hide or omit

punitive damages in truck case

If you’re a  lawyer investigating a serious truck accident, then you’ve been there — filing a complaint for your client, but unsure based upon the initial crash investigation and police report if there’s enough there to warrant adding a claim for punitive damages.

Punitive damages are difficult to prove in most states. In fact, in most states, recklessness and/or wantonness is not enough to maintain a punitive damages claim. The standard is typically something very high, such as “conscious disregard” for the rights or safety of others, or that a trucker driver (or another defendant) was aware that their conduct would result in a great possibility of causing substantial harm.

In most trucking cases, this level of conduct is often not readily apparent – especially at the beginning when a lawyer is asked to first become involved or when the lawyer is drafting a complaint.

So a lawyer is then faced with a difficult choice:

To include the punitive damages claim or not?

Having successfully litigated many very serious truck accident injury cases, I will tell you from my own experience that if there are any facts that suggest that punitive damages are warranted, then I will always include a count for punitive damages in my complaint.

Why? At the very least, for further legal discovery considerations.

The worst that happens is the defense attorney brings a motion for summary disposition later in the case to dismiss the punitive damages count (the defense attorney always brings this motion).  But by pleading punitive damages, it helps to broaden the scope of discovery.

Remember, bad trucking companies pull out all of the stops to try to avoid liability in serious truck wrecks where people are badly hurt.  Often, the trucking company will admit employment/agency and then move to dismiss all your claims against them beyond just respondeat superior liability. They will try to strike your direct negligence claims against it on the basis that their liability cannot be expanded beyond the damages caused by the trucker.  In short, they try to limit as much discovery of their wrongdoings and failures as they can.

Beyond this, when they admit liability in this fashion, they subsequently argue that the plaintiff’s truck accident attorney is not entitled to discovery of their operations, driver files, safety programs, training materials (if any), hiring practices, etc.

This is where an attorney pleading punitive damages in a truck wreck is crucial. When you include a punitive damages count, your counter-argument when the trucking company admits vicarious liability and moves to limit your discovery is that you, the truck accident lawyer, are entitled to additional discovery regarding the company practices as you are alleging punitive damages.

The risk if you don’t include punitives

There is a huge risk if you do not include punitive damages. You run the risk of more limited discovery.  Worse, you run the risk of facing successful defense motions to keep out Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) violations, and other information which is unique to a trucking case.

At the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, we have preached religiously that a truck wreck cannot be treated like a car accident (with high insurance limits). These are different types of cases entirely.  But if the trucking company successfully keeps its bad conduct out of the case, they’re essentially turning your case into a typical auto case and precluding all discovery unique to commercial trucking.

In short, punitive damages (at least at the start of your truck accident case) are not necessarily about  damages – yet. Rather, it’s all about expanding the scope of legal discovery – which, I have seen in my own truck accident cases time and time again, then supports your claim for punitive damages.

Adopt a large macro-focus on the company’s safety culture when investigating the company and engaging in legal discovery. If the company  habitually cut corners on safety, or promotes/encourages safety violations, then you likely have the support you need  for a successful punitive damages claim in a truck accident case.

Related information:

5 ways to depose a trucking company safety manager

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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