Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death and Negligence Cases – Shulin v. Werner Enterprises

Punitive damages are available in certain West Virginia personal injury cases, and are designed to punish a person or entity for particularly callous behavior. They’re separate from the compensatory damages that a person injured in an accident can seek to make them whole financially, or to compensate for money lost as a result of the accident. A recent decision out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia shows the standard that courts typically use to determine whether a person is eligible to seek punitive damages in a certain case.

under-sunset-1344391Mr. Schreiner was killed in a tragic car accident while traveling from Pittsburgh to Morgantown for work. Schreiner and Mr. Kennedy were traveling on I-79 when they pulled over to the side of the road after Kennedy’s pickup truck experienced mechanical problems. They parked the truck on the road’s right shoulder and got out to inspect the vehicle. Mr. Riffle was driving a tractor trailer owned by his employer – Werner Enterprises – in the same direction on I-79 around the same time. He took his eyes off of the road when he noticed Kennedy and Schriener working on the truck and nearly crashed into a car traveling in the opposite direction. He then overcorrected and slammed the tractor trailer into the pickup truck, striking Kennedy and killing Schreiner.

Ms. Shulin, as executor of Schreiner’s estate, sued Werner Enterprises for negligence and wrongful death. She asked the court to award compensatory damages – covering medical costs, the loss of Mr. Schreiner’s earning power, etc. – as well as punitive damages. In the litigation that followed, it was revealed that Riffle had been repeatedly cited for “failure and inability to properly and effectively operate and maintain his tractor trailer” in the months leading up to the accident. Among other dangerous behavior, Werner Enterprises had scolded Riffle for using his cell phone behind the wheel. It was determined that Riffle was also using the phone while driving on the day of the accident.

Werner asked the District Court to dismiss the claims for punitive damages, arguing that Shulin hadn’t alleged facts that would entitle her to the additional remedies. The District Court disagreed. “It is well-established that punitive or exemplary damages are permitted for both negligence and wrongful death actions in West Virginia,” the Court explained. “A jury may award punitive damages by way of punishment for willfulness, wantonness, malice, or other like aggravation of his wrong to the plaintiff, over and above full compensation for all injuries directly or indirectly resulting from such wrong,” it added.

In this case, the Court noted that Shulin alleged that Riffle saw the stopped pickup truck and yet failed to avoid it, that he took his attention off of the road just before the crash, and that he had been repeatedly cited for dangerous driving behavior prior to the accident. She also claimed that Werner allowed him to continue driving, despite the citations, and that he engaged in similar dangerous behavior that caused the crash. Although the Court couldn’t say whether Shulin would ultimately be able to recover punitive damages, it concluded that she could pursue the damages based on her claims.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, the West Virginia car crash lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Negligence and Foreseeability in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Price v. LaMaster

Comparative Negligence in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Comer v. Bloch

Negotiating with Insurance Companies in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Tuttle v. State Farm