UPS May Owe Punitive Damages for Fatal Crash

     (CN) – Punitive damages may be available to a man who plans to show that cellphone use led a truck driver to kill his wife and severely injure his child, a federal judge ruled.
     Christina Scott had been driving northbound in the right lane on Pennsylvania Route 119 in Fayette County on March 21, 2012, when her car became disabled.
     After Scott got out and walked to the trunk of her car in the two-lane roadway, United Parcel Service truck driver Thomas Burke rear-ended her.
     Burke had also been driving northbound in the right lane when his tractor with two attached trailers killed Christina and severely injured one of her children.
     Christina’s husband Robert subsequently sued UPS and Burke in the Western District of Pennsylvania.
     The Sandy Springs, Ga.-based company moved for partial judgment on the pleadings, and Scott moved about a month ago to amend his complaint.
     Scott says he can seek punitive damages based on new evidence suggesting that UPS knew or should have known that Burke was on his cellphone at the time of the crash, had a history of safety violations, and failed to complete record logs in compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
     The company replied that Scott’s new claims fail to rise to the level of evil motive or reckless indifference for punitive damages.
     U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak denied UPS partial judgment on the pleadings last week.
     “The court declines UPS’s invitation to hold, as a matter of law at this point in the proceedings, that the driver of a very large tractor-trailer truck, ‘glancing at his phone,’ and who then rear ends a stopped vehicle on or near a highway, killing that car’s driver, was not acting with a ‘reckless indifference to the rights of others,'” Hornak wrote. “That issue is one more properly considered in the context of a fully developed record.”
     UPS also failed to show that Scott’s amendment is in “bad faith,” according to the ruling.
     “A reasonable jury could conclude, if Burke was indeed using his cell phone at the time of the accident, that he was operating his vehicle with reckless indifference to the rights of others and that UPS recklessly allowed him to do so,” Hornak wrote. “A jury could also conclude that Burke had a known history of inattentiveness at the wheel.”
     Although the court gave Scott leave to recover punitive damages, it said he can not do so as a separate cause of action nor with regard to his wrongful death claims.
     “It is seemingly defendants’ position that unless a plaintiff can plead facts that conclusively demonstrate that he has a sure winner at trial, a complaint must be dismissed, or an amendment disallowed, or that in ruling on the instant motion, this court should decide ultimate factual issues on a fundamentally incomplete record,” Hornak wrote.
     The judge later added: “the pleading duty is not nearly as strenuous as defendants aver. Defendants also oppose the motion with loads of opposing factual allegations at a point at which discovery is not yet completed, particularly the deposition of Mr. Burke. To grant, now, what would in essence be defendants’ summary judgment motion would appear to the court to be wholly improvident.”
     Fact discovery will close Nov. 12, according to the ruling.
     UPS, the world’s largest package delivery company, reported $54.1 billion in revenue in 2012.

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