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District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania Allows Punitive Damages Claim for Alleged Cell Phone Use in Trucking Accident

Western Federal District Court Judge Mark R. Hornak recently granted a Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint to add punitive damages in Scott v. Burke, et. al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123432 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 29, 2013 Hornak, J.) The facts of the case involve a traffic accident in Fayette County where Plaintiff-decedent's car became disabled on a two-lane roadway. Plaintiff-decedent exited the car and was located near the trunk of her vehicle. Defendant Thomas Burke was operating a tractor with two attached trailers for his employer United Parcel Services, Inc. ("UPS"), who admit that Burke was acting within the scope and course of his employment. The tractor trailer driven by Defendant collided with Plaintiff-decedent and her vehicle, killing her and severely injuring one of her children. The surviving spouse brought this action on behalf of Plaintiff-decedent.

In the midst of fact discovery, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Leave of Court to Amend his Complaint to add punitive damages based upon information uncovered in discovery. Specifically, Plaintiff submitted that the discovery evidence indicates that Defendant was using his cell phone while operating the tractor-trailer immediately prior to the accident. Defendant denied those allegations, and filed a Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings arguing that even if those allegations were true, they do not rise to the level of "evil motive or reckless indifference" to support a claim for punitive damages.

The Court granted Plaintiff's Motion for Leave, stating that taking the Plaintiff's allegations as true, "there exists what at this point is at least a plausible stated claim for punitive damages against both defendants." The Court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that if the Defendant was in fact using a cell phone at the time of the accident that he was operating his vehicle with reckless indifference to the rights of others and a jury could also conclude that UPS recklessly allowed him to do so. Additionally, a dismissal of the claim during the pleadings phase of the case was inappropriate, but may be ripe for reconsideration at the conclusion of discovery.


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