Although a recent tractor trailer crash that killed three women occurred outside of Virginia, the case raises interesting issues regarding punitive damages. A Missouri jury found a truck driver negligent in rear-ending a line of stopped traffic, but while the jury was considering whether to award punitive damages, the trucking company settled the case with the families of the women who died in the crash.
In Virginia, punitive damages can be awarded to punish a defendant for conduct that is so reckless or negligent that it amounts to a conscious disregard of the rights (or safety) of others. But no matter how reckless or indifferent a company’s or individual’s actions are, punitive damages in Virginia are capped at $350,000. In other words, the trucking company defending the same lawsuit mentioned above in Virginia would not have had the same concern about punitive damages that they had in the Missouri court. Placing a cap on punitive damages’ awards strips a jury of the ability to condemn and punish outrageous behavior by a defendant that causes death or serious harm to an individual or his family. $350,000 in punitive damages to a large corporation does not send much of a message about the need to hire better drivers or engage in safer practices.
Some argue that not capping punitive damages would allow “runaway” jury verdicts. Such an argument does not factor in the judge’s role in reducing or setting aside a verdict that is excessive or shocking in its amount.