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When Are Punitive Damages Appropriate in Kentucky Coal Trucking Accident Lawsuits?

In Kentucky, as in other states, personal injury lawsuits may seek compensation for another person’s negligence that causes injury. However, these compensatory damages are not meant to punish the negligent person. Punitive damages may be awarded only where a party is found to have acted with “gross negligence.” It is not sufficient to show merely that someone failed to exercise reasonable care. It must also be shown that the person displayed gross negligence or reckless disregard for other peoples’ lives, safety or property.

In a recent case involving a fatal accident, the Supreme Court of Kentucky considered punitive damages in the context of a coal trucking accident. A coal truck flipped over in 2004 while it was being driven on Highway 80. From the opposite direction, a man was driving a pickup truck with a seventy-eight year old passenger. Because coal had spilled all over the highway, the man was not able to stop and crashed into the coal truck. His passenger was injured and died.

The man driving the pickup and the passenger’s estate sued the employee who had been driving the coal truck and its employer for ordinary negligence. They also sued the employer for gross negligence in failing to properly maintain the coal truck. The pickup driver settled his claims, but the estate went to trial against the employer and employee. The employer asked for a directed verdict from the trial court, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to find it had conducted itself with gross negligence. The trial court denied the motion for directed verdict. The jury awarded the estate $2,121,371.31 in compensatory damages, as well as $2 million in punitive damages against the employer for the wrongful death of the passenger.

The employer and employee appealed. The Court of Appeals set aside the punitive damages award claiming that the record did not contain enough evidence to show that the employer’s actions were grossly negligent. The estate asked the Supreme Court of Kentucky to review the case.

On appeal, the estate argued that the punitive damages were appropriate. The employer meanwhile argued, among other things, that the punitive damages award was unconstitutionally excessive.

The appellate court found that the estate had based its gross negligence claim on the employer’s failure to adequately and safely maintain the coal truck; the estate argued that the employer knew of a dangerous defect on the coal truck’s fifth wheel from the person who sold it the truck. The defect was “slack” that caused the tractor trailer to give and shimmy. Weeks before the accident at tissue, the prior owner had been driving the truck when a different trailer came loose from the fifth wheel. He made some repairs and continued to drive the truck with no problems.

The employee denied that the prior owner warned them about the wheel. The employer conducted a general inspection, but did not inspect or repair the fifth wheel in particular before the accident. The employee had not known the exact cause of the accident; he just knew that he took the curve in the road too sharply and then overcorrected, causing the truck to turn over. At trial, accident reconstruction experts testified on both sides. The estate’s expert said that the fifth wheel defect “could” have caused the truck and trailer to overturn. But excessive speed could do this, too.

The appellate court ruled that there was no evidence that the defect in the fifth wheel caused the accident. It reasoned that a jury verdict must be based on something more than speculation and therefore the employer had been entitled to a directed verdict on the issue of punitive damages. As you can see, it’s difficult to get punitive damages in accident lawsuits, but it is possible if you can show strong evidence of conduct that rises to the level of gross negligence or “recklessness” rather than mere negligence. If you or a loved one has been injured in a trucking accident, contact the experienced Kentucky personal injury attorneys of Varellas & Varellas at 877-634-1519 or via our online form.

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