The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently ruled that inadvertent driver error caused by falling asleep behind the wheel, by itself, is insufficient to support an award of punitive damages. In the recent case George v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., No. COA10-512 (N.C. Ct. App. March 15, 2011), the plaintiffs were injured when the recreational vehicle in which they were travelling was struck from behind by a Greyhound bus. George, slip op. at 1-2. The plaintiffs sought both damages for personal injuries as well as punitive damages. Id. at 2. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for punitive damages. Id.
The evidence presented to the trial court tended to demonstrate that the bus was following the RV on I-95 in North Carolina. Id. at 3. Immediately prior to the accident, none of the witnesses on the bus noticed anything unusual about the manner in which the bus was operated or with the driver. Without explanation, the bus closed on the RV and crashed into the rear of the RV without the driver applying the brakes or otherwise slowing down, and without any attempt to change lanes. Id at 4. Several passengers on the bus anticipated the accident and yelled at the driver to no avail. See id. at 11-14.
The plaintiffs argued that the driver knew or should have known that he was overtired, sleepy or otherwise unfit to operate the bus and, notwithstanding, he continued to operate the bus. Id. at 10. As a result, plaintiffs argued the driver failed to remain awake and fell asleep at the wheel causing the accident. Id. The plaintiffs further argued that Greyhound knew or should have known that the driver was similarly unfit to operate the bus citing violations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Regulations regarding the prohibition of operating a motor vehicle if a driver’s ability to do so is impaired due to, among other things, fatigue. Id.
In North Carolina, in order for punitive damages to be awarded, a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence an aggravating factor of fraud, malice, or willful or wanton conduct, including the willful or wanton operation of a motor vehicle. Id. at 7. "Willful or wanton means conduct the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury, damage, or other harm." Id at 9.
Dismissing the plaintiffs claim for punitive damages, the Court of Appeals noted that violation of a safety statute, in this case the FMSCRs, does not establish willful conduct per se. Id. at 11. Evidence was presented from multiple witnesses that the driver was either not paying attention or asleep at the time of the accident; notwithstanding, the Court of Appeals held that "inadvertent driver error caused by falling asleep behind the wheel by itself does not support an award of punitive damages." Id. at 15. The Court specifically noted the absence of any evidence presented by the plaintiffs that the driver acted "with a ‘deliberate purpose’ not to discharge any duty impose by [the FMCSRs] or acted with a ‘reckless indifference’ to the rights of others by talking on the telephone and failing to get sufficient rest before beginning his run on 30 June 2003." Id. at 16. Moreover, the Court of Appeals concluded that plaintiffs offered an insufficient forecast of evidence that defendant "Greyhound ‘participated in or condoned’ [the driver’s] alleged willful or wanton conduct." Id. at 17. Accordingly, plaintiffs claim for punitive damages against Greyhound was similarly dismissed. Id.
The Court of Appeals decision in George maintains the heightened burden of proof that a claimant must meet in order to sustain a claim for punitive damages. While a violation of a safety statute, particularly the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, is a serious matter and something that all should strive to avoid, such a violation, in and of itself, will not subject a driver or employer to a claim of punitive damages. In response, to several recent accidents, the FMCSA is considering a new rulemkaing which would require the front seat passenger of the bus to engage in constant conversation with the bus driver.
Click here to view the full Summer 2011 edition of the Transportation Industry Newsletter.