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Federal Court Holds Jury Must Decide Whether Punitive Damages Are Merited in Negligent Albuquerque Truck Crash

Posted in Firm News

A federal court in New Mexico has stated a jury must decide whether the victim of an Albuquerque semi-truck accident should receive punitive damages from a negligent trucker. In Wood v. Bennett et al., Robin Wood was traveling east on Ouray Road when he collided with a tractor-trailer driven by Harry Bennett. Wood purportedly sustained serious injuries in the avoidable crash. At the time of the accident, Bennett was driving the big rig as part of his employment with Tennessee-based Western Express. Following the wreck, Wood sued both Bennett and his employer for “negligence, negligence per se and respondeat superior” in a New Mexico state court. Wood also asked the court to award him punitive damages from both defendants.

After the case was removed to federal court based on diversity of citizenship, both defendants stipulated liability due to Bennett’s negligence and filed a motion for summary judgment with regard to Wood’s punitive damages claim. According to the court, New Mexico law allows punitive damages to be awarded based upon both a direct and vicarious liability theory. Under a theory of direct liability, a plaintiff may receive punitive damages from a defendant who “engaged in conduct that was malicious, willful, reckless, wanton, fraudulent or in bad faith.” Vicarious liability holds an employer responsible for a worker’s conduct if it occurred within the scope of employment and the employer somehow participated in or authorized the conduct.

Because Wood offered testimony that Bennett willfully drove over the front of his vehicle while laughing and making an obscene gesture, the court found that a genuine issue of material fact with regard to punitive damages against Bennett existed. As a result, the court refused to grant summary judgment to Bennett.

Despite that a jury could reasonably find that Bennett engaged in behavior that merits a punitive damages award, Wood failed to offer sufficient evidence to support a finding of vicarious liability. Since there was no evidence that Western Express authorized or supported Bennett’s alleged conduct, the New Mexico court granted partial summary judgment to the trucking company. As a result of the federal court’s decision, a jury will now consider whether Bennett’s conduct rose to a level that would support a punitive damages award under a theory of direct liability. The jury, however, will not consider whether to award punitive damages against Western Express.

Please contact the Fine Law Firm if you were injured or a family member died in a collision that was caused by a negligent semi-truck driver anywhere in New Mexico. Our caring Albuquerque truck accident lawyers have more than 100 years of combined experience helping the victims of big rig crashes across New Mexico recover the financial compensation they deserve based upon the severity of their injuries. To schedule a free, confidential case evaluation with a quality advocate, do not hesitate to give the Fine Law Firm a call at (505) 889-3463 or contact us through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Jury Award Sends Message to Negligent Truckers in New Mexico and Across U.S., New Mexico Truck Accident Lawyer Blog, November 26, 2013
Injured New Mexico Semi-Truck Accident Victims May Sue Trucking Company as Well as Driver, New Mexico Truck Accident Lawyer Blog, November 19, 2013