Punitive Damages May Be Available To Family In Wrongful Death Case

Yesterday, I posted a news article on the tragic death of Karen Whitaker.  Ms. Whitaker was killed on Route 5 in Varina on the day before Thanksgiving when her car was "T-boned" by a tractor trailer owned by CER Trucking, LLC of Waterboro, South Carolina.  News reports indicate that the driver of the truck, Clarence Risher of South Carolina, was driving on a suspended license and should not have been driving the truck.  In addition, Mr. Risher apparently had numerous other driving offenses on his record.  Police charged him with reckless driving, among other driving offenses.

Assuming that Mr. Risher was negligent or reckless in causing this crash (he presumably was, given the news reports), then Mr. Risher and his employer, CER Trucking, LLC, can and should be liable in damages to Ms. Whitaker's family.  In wrongful death cases like this, the jury "may award such damages as to it may seem fair and just."  Such damages may include the sorrow, mental anguish, and solace resulting from the death, lost compensation the person would have earned, funeral expenses, and any medical expenses associated with caring for the person as a result of the incident causing the death, among other damages.  These are called "compensatory" damages.

But there is another category of damages called "punitive" damages.  You may be wondering, if this trucking company allowed a person who was driving on a suspended license to operate this truck, isn't there something that can be done to punish the company in a civil (as opposed to a criminal) case?  In theory, yes there is.  They are called punitive damages.  Punitive damages don't compensate the victim or her family for anything they have "lost" as a result of the incident.  Rather, they are designed to punish the defendant and make an example of him to deter others from acting like he acted (or "it" acted, in the case of a company).  Would punitive damages be available here in this case?  That depends.  To get punitive damages, a plaintiff must show that the defendant engaged in "willful or wanton conduct, or such recklessness as evinces a conscious disregard for the safety of others."  I am not certain that driving on a suspended license, in and of itself, would lead to punitive damages in this case.  A link must be shown between the "bad" behavior and the incident. Maybe that can be shown here.  In addition to driving on a suspended license, Mr. Risher was also charged with recklessness.  So it is possible that he operated the truck in such a way that a jury would conclude that what he did was "reckless" or evidenced "a conscious disregard for the safety of" Ms. Whitaker.  This is where it will be critical to thoroughly investigate what caused this horrible accident.

Kevin W. Mottley
Kevin W. Mottley, Richmond, VA trial lawyer dedicated to handling brain and other serious injury claims
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