Undoubtedly, there would be substantial prejudice against a trucking company if its wealth was admitted into evidence. Usually, this will be rare; however, when making a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff’s bar will do all they can to get this information before the jury.
In Louisiana, a claim for punitive damages is allowed only if the defendant driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the accident AND that his/her drunken state caused the accident.
One time I had a claim in which a driver was operating a company vehicle after normal working hours. He was NOT a truck driver. He was a salesman and he was not making a sales call because he was leaving a bar after midnight on a Sunday morning!
A side note: The FORMER saleman was hostile to the trucking company that had a very clear policy against drinking and driving, but the plaintiff’s attorney was able to locate and “interview” him before he was deposed.
Guess what? His testimony was adverse to his former employer. Surprised?
Because of the nature of the case and possibility of punitive damages, this case was presented to a focus group. The driver’s position was NOT favorably considered and the focus groups were generally favorable to the employer.
Anyway, I have digressed.
The Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages arose from on La. Civ. Code art. 2315.4, which states:
“In addition to general and special damages, exemplary damages may be awarded upon proof that the injuries on which the action is based were caused by a wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others by a defendant whose intoxication while operating a motor vehicle was a cause in fact of the resulting injuries.”
The act that subjected our case to the possibility of punitive damages was the “intoxication” of the driver/salesperson, not any act of the trucking company. The only “bad acts” claimed against the trucking company pertained to the typical negligent hiring, retention, or entrustment.
In a similar case, a plaintiff’s attorney argued that the defendant’s employer was liable for punitive damages under a negligent entrustment theory. The court rejected the argument, stating:
“It is clear that La. Civ. C. art. 2315.4 requires more than a showing of “wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others” by a defendant. Accordingly, this Court finds that [the defendant’s] potential liability for damages under the theory of negligent entrustment does not extend to La. Civ. C. art. 2315.4 exemplary damages.”
Darby v. Sentry Ins. Auto. Mut. Co., 2007-0407 (La.App. 1 Cir. 3/23/07), 960 So.2d 226
The court also wrote that the Louisiana Supreme court said:
“[w]e will not construe penal statutes as extending powers not authorized by the letter of the law even if such powers would be arguably within its spirit.” Gibbs Const. Co., Inc. v. State, Dept. of Labor, 540 So.2d 268, 269 (La.1989); see also In the Matter of Woodrow Wilson Const. Co., Inc., 563 So.2d 385, 391 (La.App. 1 Cir.1990). “
Consequently, Louisiana law prohibits an expansive interpretation of La. Civ. C. art. 2315.4 so as to impose exemplary damages on an employer simply for entrusting its vehicle to a driver who became intoxicated and caused an accident.
Since the ends of La. Civ. Code art. 2315.4 are to punish and deter drunk driving, then the most important factor in determining the amount of punitive damages will be the degree of reprehensibility of the acts of DRIVER, not the employer.
The only reason wealth is considered for punitive damages is to further the goals of punishment and deterrence. Thus, it is ridiculous for a jury to consider the reprehensibility of an employee’s acts of drunk driving then elevate that award based on the wealth of his employer.
The wealth of a trucking company also has a substantial possibility of influencing the outcome of the case on liability and causation. Jurors would likely evaluate the trucking company employer’s liability and the Plaintiffs’ damages based on the depth of pockets rather than the merits of the Plaintiffs’ case. Jurors would likely be persuaded by the “spin” that the trucking company is a wealthy corporation that has sufficient assets to absorb any financial windfall to the Plaintiffs.
In Rodriguez v. Traylor, 468 So.2d 1186, 1188 (La. 1985) the Louisiana Supreme Court held that:
[T]he wealth or poverty of a party to a lawsuit is not a proper consideration in the determination of compensatory damages. Each litigant should stand equal in the eyes of the law regardless of his financial standing.
The bottomline is that the only justification for offering this evidence against the trucking company is for the plaintiffs to seek a substantial punitive damages award against in light of its assets.
As is typical in complex cases, this case settled (for a very reasonable amount, by the way) so there was no ruling on our motion to exclude the wealth evidence of the employer, but I think we would have won.
I look forward to your comments on this issue.
Special thanks and recognition to Trent Roddy, who is now with firm of Perrier & LeCoste in New Orleans, in helping to craft this argument.