Making the Case for Punitive Damages in Tennessee – What’s Required Under the Law?

Punitive damages are a type of damages meant to punish an individual for particularly egregious conduct and deter others from acting in a similar manner.  In Tennessee, punitive damages are available if a plaintiff can show that a defendant acted intentionally, fraudulently, maliciously, or recklessly.  If successful, a plaintiff can easily be entitled to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of additional dollars in payments.  For this reason, punitive damages is a claim that should be considered by any individual who has been harmed in an auto accident or other personal injury incident.

One of the chief difficulties in bringing a punitive damages claim is determining what constitutes “malicious” or “reckless” conduct. Courts have been notoriously reluctant to discuss the differences between liability for an action or accident itself, and punitive damages liability for the intentional or malicious nature of the action.  Recently, however, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued just such an opinion.

In Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. v. Maddox, the Kentucky Supreme Court reviewed several claims by Amanda Maddox against Nissan Motor Company and Nissan North America for injuries resulting from a collision with a drunk driver.  At the time of the accident, Ms. Maddox was wearing her seat belt, and her airbag deployed properly. However, the impact of the airbag deployment caused her numerous injuries, including fractured ribs, nerve damage, and an abdominal rupture at the site of a gastric bypass surgery she had had several years earlier.  These injuries ultimately required over 75 different surgeries.

Ms. Maddox sought both compensatory damages and punitive damages from Nissan, arguing that their seat belt and airbag systems were designed primarily for passengers of median weight, and not for larger individuals such as herself. A jury ultimately found Nissan liable for both compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, Nissan argued that punitive damages should not have been considered by the jury.

The Kentucky Supreme Court, in an opinion issued on September 24, 2015, agreed with Nissan. Although it upheld the finding of general liability against Nissan, the Supreme Court disagreed that punitive damages were available in this case. Much like in Tennessee, Kentucky’s punitive damages standard required Ms. Maddox to show that Nissan acted recklessly or with gross negligence in designing its restraint system.

The Court held that Ms. Maddox could not meet this standard, given that Nissan had complied with all federal safety regulations.  More specifically, the Court held that while compliance with regulatory standards does not automatically preclude an award of punitive damages, it does require a plaintiff to offer substantial countervailing evidence of reckless or fraudulent conduct. In this case, Ms. Maddox could not do so.

Although it is not a binding decision in Tennessee, the Maddox decision offers important insights for plaintiffs considering possible lawsuits against automobile manufacturers for product defects or safety issues. If the manufacturer has abided by federal safety regulations and met the applicable tests, proving punitive damages may be more difficult. Even if the manufacturer has failed to meet a standard of care or acted negligently, more will be required to receive punitive damages, and plaintiffs may need solid evidence that the manufacturer acted with intentional wrongdoing or in a reckless manner.

Knowledgeable car accident attorney Eric Beasley understands the requirements for a successful punitive damages claim in Tennessee and has obtained punitive damages for many of his clients. If you have recently been injured in an automobile accident or are considering a lawsuit against a product manufacturer for injuries that you have suffered, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Personal Injury Claims Increase Despite Reduction in Auto Accidents, Tennessee Injury Lawyer Blog, October 15, 2015

Questioning the Constitutionality of Tennessee’s Cap on Pain and Suffering Damages After an Automobile Accident, Tennessee Injury Lawyer Blog, October 7, 2015