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Proving entitlement to punitive damages in truck accident litigation

We've been looking in recent posts at the federal Hours of Service rules and their potential role in personal injury claims. As we noted last time, a truck driver's failure to comply with the rules, including tampering with their logbook, can result in increased penalties and potentially additional damages for accident victims at trial.

Ordinarily, personal injury damages are primarily compensatory in nature, covering losses such as medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. In cases involving particularly egregious conduct, however, punitive damages may also be available. Proving entitlement to punitive damages is not easy, as the standard of proof is quite high. 

Case law in New York, as in other states, has held that entitlement to punitive damages is based on more than mere negligence or carelessness. Rather, the defendant's actions must rise to the level of "willful or wanton" negligence or recklessness. A defendant does not need to have purposefully caused injury to the plaintiff, but there must at least be some form of gross indifference to the defendant's civil duties.

Ordinarily, the standard of proof for proving damages in civil litigation is preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that the plaintiff is entitled to the damages in question. When it comes to punitive damages, the standard of proof may be the higher standard of "clear and convincing evidence," depending on which New York Court hears the case. This higher standard, which is somewhere between preponderance and beyond a reasonable doubt, makes it even more difficult to prove entitlement to punitive damages.

Despite the strict standards for proving entitlement to punitive damages, truck accident victims should be aware of the possibility of these damages in their case and work with an experienced attorney when seeking them. Regardless of the specific facts of the case, a skilled advocate in commercial vehicle crashes can help ensure an accident victim has the best possible representation with regard to damages.

Sources:

George v. Albert, 141 A.D.3d 1004, Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, New York (2016).

Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, "What Standard Of Proof Is Required To Prove Punitive Damages?," David J. Goodearl, Aug. 28, 2014. 

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