A recent ruling from Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas may have opened the door for a new and unique basis for punitive damages in Pennsylvania. In this specific case, the counsel for plaintiff has alleged that Marie Gulbin, an elderly woman, lost consciousness while driving her vehicle due to an untreated urinary tract infection (UTI). This caused her to cross into the opposing lane of traffic and hit the vehicle of Chrystal Clauss-Walton head on, resulting in severe injuries. The Plaintiff alleged that Gulbin decided to get behind the wheel despite suffering from known symptoms of a UTI, a condition she knew (or should have known), could cause fainting if left untreated.
In overruling the Defendant's preliminary objections seeking to dismiss punitive damages claims, Judge Nealon determined that the averments set forth by Plaintiff were sufficient to establish the basis for "wanton, willful, or reckless conduct." It's important to recognize that the Plaintiff has a long road ahead when it comes to succeeding on her punitive damages claim. Also, additional litigation will most likely occur on this issue as further facts are uncovered. Historically, the legal standard for punitive damages has been construed rather strictly by Pennsylvania courts, with respect to motor vehicle accident cases. Many courts have routinely limited the ability to pursue punitive damages to cases involving egregious conduct such as a DUI/DWI, or clear and obvious distracted driving (i.e. cell phone use). Regardless, this represents a new and unusual argument for punitive damages that bears monitoring moving forward.
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