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Nissan Motor Co. v. Maddox – Punitive Damages in Car Accident Case

If a person is seriously injured or killed as a result of the negligence of another, the injured person or surviving loved ones can seek damages in civil court. There are two types of damages: Compensatory and punitive.

Compensatory damages are those meant to indemnify a person for a particular loss or injury. There is no special process for obtaining these damages, as they are intended to replace what was lost. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are supposed to punish a defendant for grossly negligent acts and to deter similar behavior in the future.

Punitive damages are not available in all cases, as F.S. 768.72 points out. Requests for punitive damages have to be approved by the trial judge, and there has to be evidence of gross negligence, such that there was a lack of disregard for human life or safety, a lack of care by defendant who was consciously indifferent to it or intentional violation of the victim’s rights.

It’s a high bar to meet, but it can be worthwhile in cases where plaintiff has suffered severe injury. This was the assertion in Nissan Motor Corp. v. Maddox, a case recently before the Kentucky Supreme Court. Mind you, each state has its own standards regarding plaintiff eligibility for punitive damages, but most are largely similar.

In this product liability lawsuit stemming from a terrible auto accident, the question was whether an auto manufacturer should be subject to punitive damages (as awarded by the jury) or whether the jury instruction was improper.

According to court records, plaintiff and her then-husband were traveling in their sport utility vehicle when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road. The impaired driver was not wearing a seat belt, and was killed upon impact. Plaintiff and her husband were both wearing their seat belts, and their airbags both deployed properly.

However, the injuries sustained by the husband, who was driving, and the wife, who was in the passenger seat, were vastly different. Husband, who weighs 170 pounds, suffered a fractured foot. However, he had no other serious injuries. Wife, however, had to be extracted from the vehicle with heavy equipment and was taken by helicopter to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Her abdomen ruptured at the site of a gastric bypass surgery she had years earlier. She also suffered broken ribs, vertebrate, hip and hip socket, as well as nerve damage. She also had tears to her bowels. She underwent 75 surgeries and spent more than a half a year in the hospital. She experienced a stroke and numerous infections.

Later, she filed a lawsuit against the estate of the drunk driver, as well as against the manufacturer of the vehicle. Against the latter, she alleged the safety restraint system (seat belt) was not designed to protect larger occupants (she weighed 240 pounds) and that manufacturer failed to warn of this fact. The seat belt system had been designed to achieve a five-star crash test rating that would appeal to all customers, but the safety of larger occupants was neglected, she alleged.

Jurors ruled in favor of plaintiff, assigning 30 percent fault to drunk driver and 70 percent fault to manufacturer, which was responsible for $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

Manufacturer appealed and appeals court affirmed, though it was divided on the issue of whether punitive damages were proper. Defense again appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The court reversed.

The issue was that authorization of punitive damages in this instance was inappropriate, justices ruled. In Kentucky, in order for punitive damages to be justified, there has to be first a finding of failure to exercise reasonable care, and then an additional finding this was accompanied by wanton or reckless disregard for the lives, safety and property of others.

The court ruled plaintiff failed to establish evidence of the latter to satisfy this requirement.

Punitive damages can be highly beneficial for plaintiffs, but your attorney must know how to appropriately argue for it.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Nissan Motor Corp. v. Maddox, Sept. 24, 2015, Kentucky Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Parents of Child Struck in Fatal Car Accident Suing Shopping Center, Sept. 27, 2015, Fort Lauderdale Auto Accident Attorney Blog

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