MANKATO — A woman suing a man for injuries she received when he crashed his car into a hay wagon is hoping to get punitive damages along with money to cover medical bills and other losses.
Joshua Bateman, 24, was driving on a gravel road north of Good Thunder the night of Aug. 27, 2011, when he hit a tractor pulling a hay wagon with 17 passengers.
Bateman’s car hit one of the large back tires on the tractor before clipping the wagon. Investigators later learned he had been drinking at the Thunder Bar in Good Thunder and had a blood-alcohol concentration of about .18, more than double the legal limit of .08 for driving.
He pleaded guilty to criminal operation of a motor vehicle in January 2012 and served 30 days in jail. Gina Urban was a passenger on the wagon who broke an ankle and received other injuries as a result of the crash. She filed a personal injury lawsuit in January seeking payment for medical costs, lost wages, and physical and mental pain.
Urban and her attorney, Nick Frentz of Mankato, also filed a motion to seek punitive damages, which are supposed to be used to deter the person being sued and others from doing something similar. State law required Urban to get approval from the judge hearing the case, District Court Judge Bradley Walker, before she could request punitive damages.
Walker issued an order last week that said Urban could add the punitive damages claim to her lawsuit. Walker’s order also said he would wait until he has seen more evidence to decide whether punitive damages will be considered if the case goes to trial.
Unlike costs for medical treatment and vehicle damages, punitive damages are not covered by insurance. So, if awarded during trial, Bateman would be required to pay the costs on his own.
In most lawsuits where punitive damages are allowed, attorneys have to show a “deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.” However, a statute was added to the drunken-driving laws that says punitive damages can be sought in a civil case if a person’s blood-alcohol concentration is over .08.
Frentz said he views the drunken-driving law as a lower standard for punitive damages that is meant to deter drunken driving. Others have argued that, overall, punitive damages in drunken-driving cases have to be considered along with the punitive damages law that requires a “deliberate disregard” for safety. The differing opinions have not made it to the Supreme Court, so there is no opinion from the high court saying how the two statutes should be used.
In his argument against the motion to add punitive damages, Bateman’s attorney, Benjamin McAninch, argued there should be “narrow limits” for punitive damages. So Urban should be required to show Bateman was doing more than drunken driving.
“In the instant case, there is absolutely no evidence that Bateman had engaged in high speed or erratic driving prior to the accident,” McAninch said.
He also pointed out that Bateman already has served time in jail and was ordered to pay $4,900 in restitution as a result of criminal charges. Adding punitive damages in a civil lawsuit would be double jeopardy, which is prohibited by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he said.
“This second punishment of the same offense is precisely what the Constitution prohibits,” McAninch said.