Punitive Damages in Automobile Accidents Involving Reckless Driving in Tennessee

Tennessee law permits the recovery of punitive damages when a defendant has engaged in reckless conduct.  Because the standard for criminally negligent homicide mirrors the standard for recklessness necessary to recover punitive damages, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals’ affirmation of the guilty verdict against a criminal defendant in a recent case could be pertinent to a punitive damages claim in a personal injury or wrongful death case.

In State of Tennessee v. Christopher Vigil, No. E2011-00259-CCAR3- CD (Tenn. Crim. App. February 9, 2012), the Court  summarized the evidence supporting the verdict:
Leading up to the incident, the proof showed that Appellant and the victim had a rather torrid relationship. The victim was staying with a friend because she had been arguing with Appellant. The two were seen arguing on the day of the offense and at least one witness saw Appellant swipe his open hand toward the victim, causing
her to react. The victim was seen at least twice with her foot dangling out of the passenger door of the car while Appellant was driving. The victim was screaming and flailing about in the car as it was driving “very fast” down the road. Appellant did not stop the car in order for the victim to exit safely. Appellant later admitted that he did not pull over and assist the victim when she was injured. From these facts, a jury could have concluded that Appellant engaged in conduct that he knew, or should have known, would have created a substantial and unjustifiable risk to the victim and constituted a gross deviation from the standard of care of an ordinary person under those circumstances.
It is unclear whether the heated relationship between the victim and Defendant was a critical part of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling. However, driving fast and erratic while a passenger is trying to get out of the vehicle should be enough to establish recklessness and justify the imposition of punitive damages.
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