United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division
Carlton W. Reeves United States District Judge.
the Court is Defendant Phillip Bertellotti's Motion for
Partial Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff Tracey James'
claim for punitive damages. James has filed claims against
Bertellotti for “intentional, willful, unlawful,
wanton, reckless, grossly negligent and/or negligent acts
and/or omissions” arising from a motor vehicle accident
that occurred on September 18, 2015. James seeks compensatory
and punitive damages. Bertellotti has admitted to simple
negligence in causing the accident. However, Bertellotti
refutes that he drove his vehicle in a grossly negligent or
reckless manner. Accordingly, he argues that he is entitled
to judgment in his favor as a matter of law on James'
claims for punitive damages.
grounds for summary judgment are familiar and well
established. See Tatum v. Kelley, No.
3:11-CV-117-CWR-FKB, 2012 WL 956409, at *2 (S.D.Miss. Mar.
20, 2012). Because this case is proceeding in diversity, the
applicable substantive law is that of the forum state,
Mississippi. Id. (citation omitted). State law is
determined by looking to the decisions of the state's
highest court. Id. (citation omitted).
Mississippi, punitive damages may be awarded “as
punishment for the defendant's wrongdoings so that others
may be deterred from similar offenses.” Gordon v.
National States Ins. Co., 851 So.2d 363, 366 (Miss.
2003) (citation omitted). The state legislature established
the following standard for when a plaintiff may receive
Punitive damages may not be awarded if the claimant does not
prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant
against whom punitive damages are sought acted with actual
malice, gross negligence which evidences a willful, wanton or
reckless disregard for the safety of others, or committed
Miss. Code § 11-1-65(1)(a).
considering whether punitive damages are appropriate to place
before the jury, a trial court must examine “[t]he
totality of the circumstances and the aggregate conduct of
the defendant.” Bradfield v. Schwartz, 936
So.2d 931, 937 (Miss. 2006) (quotation marks and citations
omitted). The question is whether “a reasonable,
hypothetical trier of fact could find either malice[, ] gross
neglect/reckless disregard, ” or fraud. Doe ex rel.
Doe v. Salvation Army, 835 So.2d 76, 81 (Miss. 2003)
on the totality of the circumstances and his conduct, a
reasonable jury could find that Bertellotti acted with gross
negligence or reckless disregard. In deposition, Bertellotti
admitted to having three beers prior to the wreck. He also
noted that officers who arrived at the scene of the collision
arrested him for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Bertellotti confirmed that he refused to take a breathalyzer
test once at the precinct “because [he] thought there
was a chance [he] might not pass the
test.” While “the Supreme Court of
Mississippi has been extremely reticent to permit punitive
damages in cases involving the mere commission of traffic
violations . . . the Court has indicated that punitive
damages may be available where a driver/tortfeasor operates
his vehicle while under the influence of an
intoxicant.” Barnes v. Carpenter, No.
2:14-CV-144-KS-MTP, 2014 WL 6068943, at *1 (S.D.Miss. Nov.
13, 2014) (collecting cases) (citation omitted). And, this
Court has denied summary judgment on claims for punitive
damages in cases of vehicle collisions that did not involve
intoxicated drivers when there were fact disputes regarding
whether a defendant's conduct rose to the level of gross
negligence. See, e.g., Welch v. Loftus, 776
F.Supp.2d 222, 227 (S.D.Miss. 2011); Gaddis v.
Hegler, No. 3:10-CV-249-CWR-LRA, 2011 WL 2111801, at
*4-5 (S.D.Miss. May 26, 2011); Harper v. Wilkaitis,
No. 3:14-CV-580-CWR-FKB, 2015 WL 12571078, at *1 (S.D.Miss.
June 2, 2015).
Bertellotti was intoxicated when his vehicle ran into
James' is a genuine issue of material fact that the jury
should decide. Should the jury find that Bertellotti was
intoxicated, the jury could reasonably find that his act of
driving while intoxicated, along with the other facts
surrounding the accident, “evidences a willful, wanton
or reckless disregard for the safety of others” such
that punitive damages should be awarded. Miss. Code §
11-1-65(1)(a); see also Barnes, 2014 WL 6068943, at
this Court appreciates the high threshold to be met before
James ultimately demonstrates that she is entitled to a jury
instruction on punitive damages on her claims against
Bertellotti, when viewing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the Plaintiff, as it is required, genuine issues
of material fact exist on this question. See, Welch,
supra, at *4.
Bertellotti's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is