If a set of facts are enough to justify a jury in a criminal case (with proof required “beyond a reasonable doubt”) to convict someone for culpable manslaughter, then those same set of facts are enough to justify a jury in a civil case (with a lesser burden of proof) to consider the issue of gross negligence. Gross negligence requires less proof than culpable negligence and reckless driving. Turner. 735 So.2d 226 (Miss. 1999).
Section 97-3-47 of Miss. Code of 1972 states as follows:
“Every other killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, and without authority of law, not provided for in this title, shall be manslaughter.”
Culpable negligence means negligence of a higher degree than gross negligence in a civil case. If a defendant is guilty of culpable negligence in a criminal case, then that defendant will also be guilty of gross negligence in the civil courts. Culpable negligence is “the conscious or reckless disregard of the probabilities of fatal consequences to others as a result of the willful creation of an unreasonable risk.” Evans v. State, 562 So.2d 91 (Miss. 1990). Culpable negligence is also defined as “negligence of a degree that is so gross as to be tantamount to a wanton disregard, or utter indifference to, the safety of human life.” Clayton v. State. 652 So.2d 720 (Miss. 1995).
Moore v. State. 117 So.2d469 (Miss. 1960) (defendant’s conviction for culpable negligence was affirmed for going 55 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone). In Moore, the victim was crossing the street. The court held that the defendant could have seen the deceased and should have seen the deceased in time to apply his brakes; that he skidded 140 feet, hit a telephone pole and lost control of his vehicle; that the physical facts and the greater weight of the evidence contradicted the defendant’s testimony. The Supreme Court defined “culpable negligence” as follows: “Negligence of a higher degree than that which in civil cases is held to be gross negligence.” In other words, in order to sustain the jury deciding the issue of punitive damages as a result of gross negligence in a civil case, all one needs to do is prove more than simple negligence but less than culpable negligence.
Shows v. State, 168 So. 862 (Miss. 1936) (defendant convicted of culpable negligence for sideswiping another truck who was going over the speed limit and crossed over the center line -reversed because of improper jury instruction). The defendant was driving a big truck and after the impact he concluded that no damage had been done and proceeded on to his destination in Hattiesburg where he was arrested.
Goldman v. State, 406 So.2d 816 (Miss. 1981) (conviction for culpable negligence affirmed for defendant who was going 60 miles per hour, crossed over the double yellow line in a no passing zone, and hit somebody head-on coming from the opposite direction).
Section 63-3-1201 of Miss. Code of 1972 states as follows:
“Any person who drives any vehicle in such a manner as to indicate either a willful or a wanton disregard for the safety or persons or property is guilty of reckless driving. Reckless driving shall be considered a greater offense than careless driving.”
In the case of Turner v. City of Ruleville. 735 So.2d 226 (Miss. 1999), the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of a complaint against the city for the actions of its police officer in allowing a drunk driver to continue driving after being stopped after the officer noticed that the defendant was driving in an erratic fashion and failed to have his headlights on. In reversing the case and allowing the jury to decide whether or not the city was liable for punitive damages, the Supreme Court held as follows citing Barnes v. State. 162 So.2d 865, 866 (Miss.
1964):The court held that for the purpose of the reckless driving statute, ‘reckless means ‘the commission of conscious acts or omissions which a driver knows or should know create an unreasonable risk of injury or damage…’.” The Court also stated: “For conduct to be ‘reckless’ it must be such as to evince disregard of, or indifference to, consequences, or the circumstances involving danger to life or safety to others, although no harm was intended’.” The Court defined “reckless disregard of rights of others” as follows: “…as used in automobile law, means the voluntary doing by motorists of an improper or wrongful act, or with knowledge of existing conditions, a voluntary refraining from doing a proper or prudent act when such act or failure to act evinces an entire abandonment of any care, and heedless indifference to results which may follow and the reckless taking of a chance of an accident happening without intent that any occur.” Id. at 229.
The Mississippi Supreme Court held as follows, citing Dame v. Estes, 101 So.2d 644,645 (Miss. 1958), which defined gross negligence as: “Gross negligence is that course of conduct which disclosed a reckless indifference to consequences without the exertion of any substantial effort to avoid them.”
The defendants argued that intent was required in order to make the city liable. The Court held: “While we agree that reckless disregard would encompass gross negligence, we hold that reckless disregard is a higher standard than gross negligence.” Id. at 229-30. In refusing to require that the plaintiff prove that the defendant intended to do harm, the Supreme Court quoted Evans v. Trader. 614 So.2d 955, 958 (Miss. 1993), which held that in order to defeat an immunity defense under the common law, the plaintiff would not have to show that the officer entertained a specific intent. It would suffice to show that the officer acted with wanton and reckless disregard for the plaintiffs safety.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “punitive damages are ordinarily recoverable where the negligence is so gross as to indicate reckless or wanton disregard for the safety of others.” City of Jackson v. Perry,764 So 2d 373 (MS 2000) (57 mph in 35 mph zone knocking vehicle 75 feet; punitive damages affirmed), Also see Maye v. Pearl River County. 758 So.2d 391, 395 (MS 1999) (backing sheriffs car out of parking space up an incline; punitive damages affirmed).
Punitive damages may be recovered, not only for willful and intentional wrong, but for such gross and reckless negligence as is equivalent to such wrong, since an act done in the spirit of wantonness and recklessness is often times just as harmful as if prompted by malice. Bush v. Watkins. 80 So.2d 19 (Miss. 1955). The definition of gross negligence is found in Teche Lines. Inc. v. Pope, 166 So. 539 (Miss. 1936), which held that there is no precise definition of gross negligence, but it might be defined as that course of conduct which, under the particular circumstances, disclosed a reckless indifference to consequences without the exertion of any substantial effort to avoid them. Also see Reid v. Halpin, 178 So. 88 (Miss. 1938); Planters Wholesale Grocery v. Kincaid. 50 So.2d 578 (Miss. 195n: Belk v. Rosemond. 57 So.2d461 (Miss. 1952); and Dame v. Estes, 101 So.2d644 (Miss. 1958).
Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the master is liable for the acts of his servants which are done in the course of their employment and in the furtherance of the master’s business; punitive damages may be awarded against a master for the negligent acts of his servant. Sandifer Oil Co. v. Dew, 71 So.2d 752 (Miss. 1954). Employer held liable for willful and wanton acts resulting in injury to boy whom driver of truck had invited to ride thereon. Trico Coffee Co. v. Clemens. 151 So. 175 (Miss. 1933).
The most important case on the issue is U.S. Industries. Inc. v. McClure Furniture Co.. 371 So.2d 391 (Miss. 1979). In U.S. Industries, the Mississippi Supreme Court held as follows: “We have to keep in mind that the basic theory is whether or not there was sufficient evidence for the jury to award punitive damages even though the evidence might be conflicting. It is not the court’s prerogative to make the award. It is only for the court to decide whether or not the party requesting a punitive damage instruction has presented sufficient evidence for the jury’s consideration. Yazoo & Mississippi Valley R.R. Co. v. Hardie. 55 So.42 (Miss. 1911); Snowden v. Osborne. 269 So.2d 858 (Miss. 1972).” Id. at 393.
In affirming the award of punitive damages, the Mississippi Supreme Court held as follows:”The evidence was uncontradicted that Mississippi Highway 550 is a well-traveled road, that the tractor-trailer completely blocked both lanes of traffic and that this occurred prior to sunrise which was at 6:50 on the morning of the accident, and that visibility was at best limited. Prudence would have required Jones to have moved his rig on to the shoulder of the road either to await full daylight or to place the necessary flares, or to have continued in his own lane until he found an appropriate intersection for completing the maneuver. Instead, Jones risked the possibility of collision against the possibility of completing the dangerous turn within the few moments when the road appeared to be clear of traffic. He exercised bad judgment under the circumstances.” (emphasis added)Id. at 393-94.
The U.S. Industries court also cited the Fifth Circuit Mississippi case of Anderson v. Eagle Motor Lines, Inc., 423 F.2d 81 (5th Cir. 1970) for allowing the punitive damage instruction to go to the jury. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the award of punitive damages and held that the blocking of the highway was gross negligence entitling the plaintiff to a punitive damage instruction.
Also see Commodore Corp. v. Bailey. 393 So.2d 467 (Miss. 1981), whereby the Mississippi Supreme Court in affirming the punitive damage instruction held as follows:
“If the evidence presented by the party requesting a punitive damage instruction is such that the jury could find that the wrongful acts complained of resulted from such gross disregard of the rights of the complaining party as amounts to wilfulness on the part of the wrongdoer, or that the opposite party was guilty of such negligence as to amount to a reckless disregard of the complaining party’s rights, then the court is fully authorized to submit the issue of punitive damages for the jury’s deliberation. Fowler Butane Gas Co. v. Varner, 141 So.2d 226 (Miss. 1962).”Id. at 471.
See Paracelsus Healthcare Corp. v. Willard, 754 So.2d 437 (Miss. 1999), whereby the Supreme Court previously remanded two cases for consideration of punitive damages and then affirmed the jury awards of 1.5 million dollars to each plaintiff for punitive damages and held that the evidence supported the finding that the jury could find the actions to be in gross disregard for the rights of the plaintiffs.
Punitive damages are defined as damages given in enhancement of ordinary damages on account of the wanton, reckless, malicious, or oppressive character of the acts complained of. Interstate Oil Pipeline Co. v. Valentine. 110 So.2d 369 (Miss. 1959).
In Sandifer Oil Co. v. Dew. 71 So.2d 752,758 (Miss. 1954), the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the lower court decision allowing the jury to consider punitive damages for a truck driver who left his truck pumping gasoline into a storage tank and went across the street to a restaurant and drank a cup of coffee. When someone alerted the truck driver that the gas was overflowing, the truck driver turned off the switch and stopped the motor and the pump. A few minutes later there was an explosion. In affirming the punitive damages award, the Supreme Court held that: “It was difficult to conceive of a case of more reckless and wanton disregard of the consequences of his act. His negligence was gross, it was reckless, and it was wanton to such extent as to be tantamount to wilfulness…those who handle such dangerous agencies should be made to know the standard of care which is required of them. It is regrettable that such a tragic occurrence is necessary to again bring such knowledge to those engaged in such business.” Id. at 758-759. “It is interesting to note and we concur in opinion that the ($90,000) ninety thousand dollar verdict in 1954 was the highest verdict in the country for the death of a child at that time.”
Dame v. Estes. 101 So.2d 644 (Miss. 1958) (question of whether plaintiff was entitled to recover punitive damages should have been submitted to the jury when the defendant failed to stop at a stop sign.) In Dame, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision in refusing to allow the jury to consider punitive damages and held that the facts justified a punitive damages instruction and reversed for a new trial on damages only. The facts of the case were that the witnesses estimated the speed of the defendant to be 50 miles per hour. The defendant said she was going 30-35 miles per hour. The speed limit was 30 miles per hour. The Mississippi Supreme Court held that the defendant either ignored or failed to see the stop sign which was staring her in the face and made no effort to stop at the intersection or to even check the speed of the vehicle she was behind. It was in broad open daylight, there was nothing to obstruct her vision and she wholly failed to see the plaintiff s pickup truck until it was directly in front of her. We think under this case that the question of whether plaintiff was entitled to recover punitive damages should have been submitted to the jury. The Court cited Hadad v. Lockeby. 169 So. 691 (Miss. 1936) for the definition of punitive damages as follows: “Punitive damages may be recovered not only for a willful and intentional wrong, but for such gross and reckless neglect as is equivalent to such a wrong, since an act done in the spirit of wantonness and recklessness is oftentimes just as harmful as if prompted by malice.” The Court also cited Teche Lines. Inc. v. Pope. 166 So. 539 (Miss. 1936), for the definition of gross negligence: “Gross negligence is that course of conduct which, under the particular circumstances, discloses a reckless indifference to consequences without the exertion of any substantial effort to avoid them.” The Court then cited Wilson v. State. 161 So. 744 (Miss. 1930), wherein the Supreme Court affirmed a manslaughter conviction, for culpable negligence, upon facts in which the negligence is no more culpable than in the case now before us. Id at 645.
Also see, Teche Lines. Inc. v. Pope. 166 So. 539 (Miss. 1936) (bus driver who failed to attempt to stop his bus until 10 feet from railroad crossing, held grossly negligent).The facts in this case are that the bus driver was driving his bus which was 30 feet long, weighed 10 tons, and had a 39 passenger seating capacity; the bus driver was traveling 25 miles per hour and approached the railroad crossing. The bus driver failed to stop until he was about 10 feet from the crossing, resulting in a disastrous collision and serious and permanent injuries to plaintiff who was a passenger on the bus.
Hadad v. Lockeby, 169 So. 691 (Miss. 1936) (award of punitive damages is affirmed for defendant driving 35-40 miles per hour in a 20 miles per hour speed zone without sounding his horn or giving any warning of his approach; he saw some pedestrians and struck them anyway). The defendant had three eyewitnesses who testified that the defendant sounded his horn and slowed his speed. The Mississippi Supreme Court held that the defendant was driving his car at an excessive rate of speed, that he saw the plaintiff crossing the road and failed to slow his speed or sound his horn or give any warning until the accident. These facts if true constitute gross negligence on the part of the defendant. It is interesting to note the words of wisdom offered by the Hadad Supreme Court: “These machines upon the highways are extremely dangerous to others using the highways. The lives and limbs of persons should be safeguarded, and something should be done to reduce accidents to a minimum.” Id. at 694.
Southland Broadcasting Co. v. Tracy, 50 So.2d 572 (Miss. 1951) (jury authorized in finding that driver’s negligence was so wanton and reckless as to justify the infliction of punitive damages for speeding, failing to negotiate a turn, leaving the highway, and traveling approximately 720 feet after leaving the highway.)
Collins v. Black. 380 So.2d 241 (Miss. 1980) (Supreme Court reinstated jury verdict for punitive damages against defendant who was driving at an unreasonable rate of speed, on the wrong side of the road, and failed to stop after the collision.) The conduct of a driver of a vehicle in failing to stop after the accident when taken in connection with all the circumstances may authorize a finding of a lack of care, conscious indifference to the consequences, and aggravating circumstances authorizing the recovery of punitive damages.
So if you have a question about your 18 wheeler or other accident case which may justify punitive damages, give me a call or email me. 601-969-1977 firstname.lastname@example.org