Can Punitive Damages Be Claimed In A Car Accident In Baltimore?

The answer is no. In the case of Donna Komornik v. Gregory Sparks 331 Md. 720, 629 A2d 721 (1983) the Maryland Court of Appeals was presented by the following facts. The at fault driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident and that intoxication was one of the causes of the accident. In addition Komornik also proffered records of the Motor Vehicle Administration reflecting Sparks’s driving record. In his oral summary of that record Komornik’s counsel noted a May 1982 probation before judgment for driving under the influence, and a December 1984 conviction for driving while intoxicated. The latter resulted in an assessment of twelve points against his driving record and a restricted license for three years. In November 1989 Sparks refused a blood alcohol test so that his motor vehicle operator’s license was suspended. After the subject accident, Sparks was convicted of driving under the influence based on the November 1989 arrest. The suspension for the November 1989 test refusal was in effect when the December 22, 1989, accident occurred, although Sparks, on deposition, indicated that he was unaware of that suspension. Sparks was not charged with driving at the time of the subject accident on a suspended license.

The appellate court reiterated that punitive damages are not available in a motor vehicle negligence action in which the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Applying Owings-Illinois v. Zenobia 325 Md 420, the court stated that in order to award punitive damages there must be a finding of “actual malice.”

Zenobia held:

” In a non-intentional tort action, the trier of facts may not award punitive damages unless the plaintiff has established that the defendant’s conduct was characterized by evil motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud, i.e., `actual malice.’ See Davis v. Gordon 183 Md 129 (1944)].”

“The scope of this opinion primarily encompasses the standard of conduct which will support an award of punitive damages in so called non-intentional tort cases, i.e. negligence and strict liability cases. In addition, our overruling of the H & R Block v. Testerman 275 Md 36], -Wederman v. City Chevrolet 278 Md 524 (1976) `arising out of contract’ principle is applicable to all tort actions. We shall not at this time, however, reconsider or modify the legal principles concerning the type of conduct which will support an award of punitive damages in so-called intentional tort actions, i.e., tort actions other than negligence and strict liability. To some extent, the applicable legal principles are reviewed in Schaefer v. Miller 322 MD 297 (1991).”

“`[P]unitive damages are awarded in an attempt to punish a defendant whose conduct is characterized by evil motive, intent to injure, or fraud, and to warn others contemplating similar conduct of the serious risk of monetary liability.'”331 Md at 13 (quoting Zenobia, 325 Md at 454 (citations omitted)).

In the case before us there is insufficient evidence of “actual malice,” as defined in Zenobia to express the punitive damage standard for non-intentional (negligence and products liability) tort cases. Komornik’s proffer presents no facts from which a jury would be permitted, under Zenobia, to infer that Sparks’s conduct was characterized by evil motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud. Indeed, the proffer reflects that, at the time of the accident, Sparks’s state of mind was to the contrary of that required by Zenobia. His intent was to avoid injury to those stopped ahead of him. He had not been traveling at an excessive speed, and he was attempting to stop the truck.

“We believe that in products liability cases the equivalent of the `evil motive,’ `intent to defraud,’ or `intent to injure,’ which generally characterizes `actual malice,’ is actual knowledge of the defect and deliberate disregard of the consequences. Therefore, in order for actual malice to be found in a products liability case, regardless of whether the cause of action for compensatory damages is based on negligence or strict liability, the plaintiff must prove (1) actual knowledge of the defect on the part of the defendant, and (2) the defendant’s conscious or deliberate disregard of the foreseeable harm resulting from the defect.”

Id. at 462, 601 A.2d at 653. We made plain that, by “actual knowledge,” we did not mean constructive knowledge, id., and that, by “conscious or deliberate disregard,” we did not mean “negligence alone, no matter how gross, wanton, or outrageous.” Id. at 463, 601 A.2d at 654.

Based upon the above case, unless the defendant intentionally causes an accident, no punitive damages will be awarded.

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