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Reckless Driving In Virginia Bus Crash May Lead To Punitive Damages

Posted on: April 5, 2017

While many traffic accidents are caused by a driver’s negligence, there are others caused by sheer recklessness when certain conduct is involved. As ABC News 13 Now reports, a school bus driver is facing counts of reckless driving after he plowed into a stopped car in Yorktown, Virginia on the morning of March 15, 2017. Investigators stated that the bus operator was traveling east as he approached the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Virginia State Road 600 near Big Bethel Road. The man struck a passenger vehicle that had stopped for a red light, though further causes and details for the crash were unknown at the time of the report. The collision caused a chain reaction, resulting in damage to additional vehicles.

The bus was carrying 11 passengers when the crash occurred. Five of them, all high school students, suffered injuries in the incident. At the scene, some individuals were treated for minor medical issues by the York County Fire Department. When a victim suffers injuries due to the reckless conduct of another person, proving a Virginia personal injury case is somewhat different from the more familiar negligence standard. Still, the victim may be able to recover compensation for his or her losses.

Recklessness in a Virginia Vehicle Accident Case

There are different theories of liability in an incident that causes injury to another person; negligence and recklessness are related in the sense that the responsible party did not willfully cause harm. However, they differ with respect to what a victim must prove in order to recover for his or her losses. Negligence is carelessness, where recklessness goes beyond incompetence or mistake. A person’s actions may be reckless when:

  • There is a definitive intent to commit an act, with knowledge that it creates a risk of harm;
  • The risk the person takes is unreasonable and greater than mere mistake; and,
  • The person knows or should have known that the risk puts others in harm’s way.

The “knows or should have known” standard is what sets recklessness apart from the negligence benchmark, but it is a fine line that is not always clear. On the one hand, the focus is on the responsible party’s frame of mind regarding the risk; on the other, it is a consideration of what a reasonable person would have thought. Under the recklessness standard, a person intends to commit the act and knows the risks, even if he or she does not specifically intend to cause injury to another. There is a strong belief that harm will occur, and the actor goes forward with the reckless conduct anyway.

Some examples can help illustrate:

  • Speeding may be negligent conduct. Drag racing through a residential neighborhood would be reckless.
  • Distracted driving, like talking on the phone or texting, would fall under negligent actions. Driving while over the legal alcohol limit would be reckless driving.
  • Failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign may qualify as negligence. Running full speed on the approach to a traffic light might be recklessness.

Damages Available in a Personal Injury Case Based Upon Recklessness

When a victim suffers losses as a result of an incident in which recklessness played a part, the damages typically fall into two categories.

  • Economic Damages: These are losses that are readily ascertainable because documentary or other evidence proves their value. Economic damages may include costs of medical treatment, burial and funeral expenses if the victim dies, and lost wages when a victim cannot work.
  • Non-Economic Damages: An accident victim may sustain losses that are not easy to quantify, but which are just as harsh. It is not possible to put a dollar value on physical pain, though there can be no doubt that a victim suffers. Likewise, it is difficult to rate the impact on a victim’s relationships after an accident, but there is certainly some emotional anguish.

In addition to damages intended to compensate a victim for losses, a personal injury case based upon recklessness may include punitive damages. This type of damages is intended to punish the responsible party for his or her actions, and discourage such actions in the future. Punitive damages are also termed “exemplary” because a correlated goal is to make an example of the wrongdoer and deter others from similar activity.

The bar to prove the right to punitive damages is quite high in Virginia, so there are strict legal requirements a victim must satisfy to justify an additional award beyond compensation. When the responsible party’s actions are in conscious disregard of someone else’s safety or exhibit reckless indifference to the foreseeable consequences, punitive damages may be appropriate.

Cap on Punitive Damages in Virginia

Many states across the US have enacted statutory caps on punitive damages, and Virginia is one of them. Under state law, a victim is limited to a cap of $350,000 for damages intended to punish the responsible party, including those actions for personal injury and medical malpractice cases. However, a jury is not given instructions on the statutory cap when deliberating on punitive damages, so members may designate an award that exceeds the $350,000 limit. In such a situation, the judge will hear the jury’s verdict and then reduce the punitive damages amount to the maximum allowed under the statute.

by Justin Katz  
Justin Katz is a personal injury lawyer who represents injury victims in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC
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