A recent decision in the case of Wilson v. TA Operating, LLC, No. 4:14-cv-00771, 2017 WL 569195 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 13, 2017) (Brann, J.), should be an eye-opener for any defendant facing a claim of punitive damages.
The facts in Wilson were both tragic and unusual. The decedent-driver experienced a fire in the front brakes of his tractor trailer as he was traveling on Interstate 80. After extinguishing the flames, he brought the rig to the nearest service station for repairs. Having been assured that the brakes were fixed, the decedent was sent on his way. But after just 15 miles on the road, the brakes again caught fire. While trying to put out the blaze, he suddenly collapsed and died along a remote stretch of highway. Although the opinion does not say so explicitly, it appears that the cause of death was a heart attack.
The defendants—the service station where the repairs were made and the technician who made them—moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. The court, however, denied the motion, finding genuine issues of material fact concerning the defendants’ training, supervision, and expertise. Thus, construing Pennsylvania law, District Judge Brann held that the mechanic’s failure to properly repair the brakes could, under the circumstances presented, rise to the requisite level of recklessness to support a claim for punitive damages. Ultimately, the question was left to the jury as one of fact.
Of course, the potential for an award of punitive damages in a negligence action is not remarkable, in and of itself. Indeed, it’s long been the rule in Pennsylvania that willfulness, wantonness, or recklessness can justify the imposition of exemplary damages.
But what makes Wilson noteworthy is the fact that the alleged recklessness (i.e., failure to repair the brakes) did not lead directly to decedent’s death. Rather, it was determined that the decedent died as a result of a heart attack, which was brought on by stress and physical exertion in attempting to extinguish the brake fire, which, only then, was blamed on the defendants. In that way, Wilson differs from the more typical case against a technician—or, in the realm of product liability, a manufacturer—where an accident is the direct result of an alleged breach of the duty to exercise due care, such as when a car runs off the road due to a failure to fix its steering mechanism.
From our perspective, the court’s analysis in Wilson can be criticized for failing to account for the attenuated chain of causation at issue in that case. According to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and as acknowledged in Wilson, punitive damages can be premised upon recklessness only if a plaintiff proves (1) that “a defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed,” and (2) that “he acted, or failed to act, as the case may be, in conscious disregard of that risk.” Hutchison ex rel. Hutchison v. Luddy, 582 Pa. 114, 124 (2005).
The theoretical risk of harm to which the decedent was exposed in Wilson was a fire in the tractor trailer’s brakes which, by extension, carries the potential for injury due to an explosion or burns or, perhaps, inoperable brakes. Yet, in Wilson, the decedent’s death did not result from any of those arguably foreseeable risks—at least not directly. Instead, it would seem that he had some underlying predisposition to a cardiac event which manifested on the night in question due to the stressors associated with the fire.
Maybe that’s enough to satisfy but-for and proximate causation in support of a negligence claim—indeed, in the eyes of a plaintiff’s attorney, everything is foreseeable. But without evidence that the mechanic knew of the decedent’s underlying health condition, it is unclear how the defendants could have had a “subjective appreciation” of the risk of a heart attack or “conscious[ly] disregarded” that risk in failing to fix the brakes on decedent’s tractor trailer.
To be fair, our practice is dedicated to representing those on the right (read: correct) side of the “v.,” but to us, there was simply too great a divide between the defendants’ alleged wrongdoing (poor workmanship) and the decedent’s injuries (death by heart attack) to leave the issue of punitive damages to the jury.
Lastly, to add more significance to this opinion, the court further held that the service station could be vicariously liable for the technician's alleged recklessness done to his brake repair and this too was a question for the jury to decide.