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Miami Truck Accident Lawyers Explain How Employers are Liable for Punitive Damages due to Employee Misconduct

Some big rigs are independently owned and operated, while others belong to a company who employ drivers to operate their trucks. In the latter scenario, the employer is liable for damages caused by the employee even if the employer did not commit a wrong. The legal theory in play here is called the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior (the “Doctrine”).  The Doctrine remains valid under Florida law and is also referred to as “vicarious liability.” Usually, the employer is only liable for ordinary damages even if the employer was not negligent. Some cases allow plaintiffs to collect punitive damages from a trucking company and not merely the employee. We at Miami truck accident firm of Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano have seen cases like that in our combined 130 years of litigation experience.

The question of whether an employer is ever liable for punitive damages assessed by a jury for actions committed by the employee appeared in the 1981 case of Mercury Motor Exp. Inc., v. Smith.  In Smith, the driver of a tractor-trailer lost control of his rig and left the roadway. Upon leaving the roadway, the tractor-trailer struck a person along the side of the road and killed him. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that the truck driver operated the tractor-trailer while under the influence of alcohol to such an extent that the alcohol consumption diminished his ability to drive the tractor-trailer safely. The truck driver was on-duty and working for Mercury Motors when he killed the pedestrian.

After the trial, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $400,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. The plaintiff argued that the employer, under the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior, is liable for the punitive damages and not just the employee. The trial court agreed, and defendant appealed.

The trial court correctly decided that the jury appropriately assessed punitive damages against the employee in this case. individualA jury could assess punitive damages against a person if the individual’s misconduct was “willful and wanton.” The Florida Supreme Court overturned the trial court’s ruling. Florida’s highest state court ruled that employers are responsible for punitive damages stemming from the wilful and wanton misconduct of their employees only if there is some fault on the employer’s behalf giving rise to the employee’s misconduct.

Punitive damages are punishment for wrongdoing. Therefore, an injustice results from punishing an organization if it did not do anything wrong under the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior. Even under the “dangerous instrumentality doctrine,” the owner of the truck must have committed some wrongful act to be held liable for punitive damages. Based upon that reasoning, Florida’s high court set out the formula for determining when an employer is liable for punitive damages because of an employee’s misconduct. The court reaffirmed the principle that employers remain responsible for their employee’s misconduct even if the employer did nothing wrong. The court also reiterated that punitive damages are available to a plaintiff when the circumstances allow to punish the defendant for the alleged misconduct and deter others from committing a similar act. Lastly, the court held that an employer is liable for its employees wilful and wanton misconduct but the company shall not be responsible for the punitive damages unless the plaintiff proves some fault on behalf of the organization. The plaintiff does not have to offer proof of willful and wanton misconduct; rather negligence may suffice.

Turn To The Miami Truck Accident Attorneys To Whom Martindale-Hubbell Gave An AV Rating.

The South Florida Truck Accident Attorneys of Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano, an AV Rated law firm by Martindale Hubbell, have vast experience representing plaintiffs injured in Florida trucking accidents. Call Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano today at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 to schedule a free consultation and learn why the Miami Herald rated them a top litigation law firm in Miami.  With over 130 years of collective legal experience, we use our vast experience and skill sets to fight hard for the compensation you deserve.

Source: Mercury Motors Exp., Inc. v. Smith, 393 So. 2d 545 – Fla: Supreme Court 1981

 

 

 

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