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Smizer v. Drey – When to Pursue Punitive Damages in Crash Case

Most people understand that when they are involved in a car accident that was someone else’s fault, they are entitled to collect damages for serious injuries. What is less understood is the fact there are two kinds of damages: Compensatory and punitive.

While compensatory damages are intended to compensate victims for actual losses, punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer and discourage similar future acts. There are certain criteria for pursuit of punitive damages, and in Florida, the criteria is described in F.S. 768.72Plaintiffs will have to show defendant either acted with gross negligence (conduct so reckless it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference for life, safety and rights of others) or intentional misconduct.

Punitive damages aren’t applicable to every case, but they are usually worth exploring because they can substantially increase the sum owed to car accident victims. However, plaintiff attorneys must be cautious because filing for punitive damages absent a sound basis to do so may result in sanctions from the court. 

That was the case recently in Smizer v. Drey, before the South Dakota Supreme Court.

According to court records in the car accident lawsuit, plaintiffs were seriously injured when a vehicle driven by defendant collided with their own at an intersection.

Plaintiffs were traveling to church with their daughter and granddaughter when the crash happened. Defendant was attempting to proceed through an intersection traveling west while plaintiffs were traveling south through that same intersection. The speed limit there is 65 mph, but defendant stated she was traveling about 45 mph and slowed to 35 mph as she approached the intersection.

Defendant stated she looked for oncoming traffic, but didn’t see any and proceeded through. She would later say the presence of a large cornfield obstructed her view of southbound traffic. She didn’t see plaintiff’s vehicle until it was too late to avoid a crash. She slammed on her brakes, but was unable to stop. She hit plaintiff’s vehicle just behind the driver’s side door. Defendant was cited by police for failure to yield.

Plaintiffs then filed a personal injury lawsuit alleging defendant was negligent and because she failed to yield at an intersection, her actions amounted to negligence per se (a finding of negligence based on violation of the law). Plaintiffs also asserted a claim for punitive damages, alleging defendant “regularly” did not yield at this particular intersection, and thus her actions were “willful” and “reckless,” entitling them to punitive damages.

Defendant countered there was no basis on which to assert punitive damages, and plaintiffs had done so only to intimidate and harass her. She request the court impose sanctions on plaintiffs for asserting punitive damages when they had no grounds.

In the discovery phase, defense asked plaintiffs to identify the evidence they had to support their claim for punitive damages. Plaintiffs specifically cited statements by two individuals who allegedly claimed to have seen defendant regularly fail to yield at the intersection. However, upon further examination, one of those witnesses couldn’t be sure if the person they had seen was defendant or defendant’s sister. The other witness denied having ever made such a statement.

Based on this “failure to conduct a reasonable investigation of their claim” for punitive damages, the court did agree to plaintiffs had no basis on which to pursue punitive damages. Although the court did grant partial summary judgment to plaintiffs on the issue of defendant’s negligence, the court also imposed sanctions on plaintiffs (including payment of defendant’s attorney’s fees) for seeking punitive damages when they had no grounds to do so.

This is not to say punitive damages aren’t available in crash cases, though they will usually be seen in cases where the at-fault driver was drunk or extremely sleep-deprived or engaging in some reckless driving behaviors.

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:

Smizer v. Drey, Jan. 6, 2015, South Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Fatal Car Accident in South Florida Stuns Equestrian Community, Jan. 4, 2015, Orlando Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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