Punitive damages are an issue that occasionally arises in my work as a St. Louis semi truck accident lawyer. Punitive damages are monetary payments ordered when a defendant has acted with deliberate malice, reckless disregard for safety or intentional fraud; these are in addition to financial damages ordered for the plaintiff’s personal and financial losses. Not surprisingly, punitive damages are not awarded in every case; they are reserved to penalize the most serious wrongdoing, with the goal of deterring future misconduct. But because punitive damages cost more money to an at-fault defendant, and have become a political issue, defendants frequently move to bar the jury from even considering whether to award them. This was the case in Fairchild v. SCDOT, in which the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld an appeals court’s finding of reversible error when the trial court didn’t allow the jury to consider punitives.
The accident underlying the case was allegedly triggered by a dump truck owned by the South Carolina Department of Transportation. On March 1, 2001, the truck was attempting to make a U-turn from the southbound lanes of I-95 to the northbound lanes. Unfortunately, the truck was hauling a trailer transporting a backhoe, and its increased length caused the vehicle to protrude from the turnaround into the left lane of southbound 95. Several drivers immediately behind the dump truck changed to the right lane, but Marilee Fairchild slowed down instead, flashing her brakes as she approached the protruding trailer. She avoided the trailer and truck, but was hit from behind by William Leslie Palmer, driving a commercial truck with a motorcycle trailer (totaling eight and a half tons), with enough force to roll her minivan over into the median.
In 2003, Fairchild sued SCDOT, Palmer, and Palmer’s construction company over the resulting physical injuries and property damage, seeking punitive as well as ordinary damages. After SCDOT was dismissed as a defendant, the case went to trial against Palmer defendants and the jury eventually returned a verdict of $720,000. On cross-appeals, the South Carolina Court of Appeals found reversible error in the trial court’s refusal to submit punitive damages and a physician negligence issue to the jury, but upheld the denial of Palmer’s request for an independent medical exam. Palmer again appealed.
On the punitive damages issue, the appeals court had found that there was indeed evidence of Palmer’s recklessness, despite the trial court’s conclusion otherwise, because the jury had been given evidence that he might have been speeding and following too closely. The violation of either traffic law is negligence per se in South Carolina, the high court noted, and negligence is evidence of recklessness or willfulness that requires submission of punitive damages to the jury. Thus, it agreed that the trial court erred in declining to submit the issue, and upheld the appeals court’s order for a new trial. On the physician negligence issue, Fairchild requested jury instructions on determining “the negligence of a treating physician,” which were denied. The Court of Appeals reversed this, finding Palmer had submitted evidence arguing her doctor was over-medicating her. The high court again upheld, finding reversible error. Finally, it upheld denial of Palmer’s motion for an IME performed by the same physician serving as his expert witness.
As a Missouri tractor-trailer accident attorney, I’m pleased to see such a pro-plaintiff result. Judging from the facts in this case, there were serious questions about whether Palmer was negligent in driving his large commercial truck. For example, the opinion notes testimony from Palmer that he maintained a speed of 65 to 70 mph to limit his following distance so other drivers wouldn’t cut in. Not maintaining enough following distance is a basic mistake of truck driving, and indeed, truck drivers frequently complain that other drivers aren’t aware that they need extra following distance. Under that and similar circumstances, I applaud the court for remanding the case for a new trial including punitive damages. The jury may not award them — indeed, it may not find for Fairchild at all — but as a southern Illinois big rig accident lawyer, I believe everyone should get a fair trial.
If your family has lost a loved one or suffered serious injuries because of an accident with a large truck, don’t hesitate to call Carey, Danis & Lowe. To learn more or set up a free consultation, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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