The Associated Press recently reported on the sentencing of a woman in Deschutes County to more than 12 years in prison following a December 2017 incident in which she struck and killed a 38-year-old Bend woman who was riding a bike.
The news agency, citing local TV station KTVZ, quotes the Deschutes County Circuit Judge overseeing the trial calling it “the most extreme reckless endangerment case:” he had ever seen. The defendant was convicted “for hitting and killing a cyclist while driving under the influence (of)… nearly a dozen prescription drugs, including her dog’s anxiety pills, at the time of the crash,” the AP reports. Clearly there is a case to be made for punitive damages here.
Though the criminal trial is now over, the question of civil damages is one that may still need to be addressed. Obviously there is a strong case to be made for a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s estate. It is also worth noting that, according to media reports, the woman was “riding with two friends” on a road east of Bend at the time of the accident. The survivors, even if they were not physically injured, may have a strong case to make for damages based on the mental distress they have suffered in the wake of their friend’s death. All of these parties – the decedent’s beneficiaries as well as the other two people impacted by the accident – have a strong claim to punitive damages.
Sadly, that may not be as easy as it sounds. Under ORS 31.725 (“Pleading Punitive Damages”) while civil suits may be filed in cases like these those suits cannot initially include requests for punitive damages. Section 2 of the statute allows initial filings to be amended to assert punitive claims, but the following sections of the law lay out numerous reasons why a court may then deny those claims or delay a decision on whether to accept them while allowing the defendant essentially unlimited time to search for reasons why the court ought to deny the request. Oregon’s system, in short, allows for punitive damages in theory while, in practice, erecting significant barriers against anyone seeking to claim them.
As a Portland attorney with a practice focused on helping victims and their families obtain justice in the wake of other people’s reckless or negligent behavior I hope our lawmakers will find time during this year’s legislative session to rethink the restrictions that previous legislators have imposed on Oregonians’ ability to receive the compensation they deserve. This is not a case of courts running amok but, rather, of the deck being stacked against victims.
For example, in a case as clear cut as the one we are looking at here there is no logical reason why victims and their families should have to meet such a high bar even to ask the court to consider punitive damages. Fairness aside, it is simply inefficient to require that requests for these awards be filed separately from the main case. It requires courts to schedule a separate round of hearings and motions, and for time to pass in even the most clear-cut of cases. This is especially nonsensical as it is settled law here in Oregon that judges do allow complaints to be amended for the purpose of adding requests for punitive damages. Real justice is also timely justice. When the law makes the latter difficult it makes the former that much more elusive.
AP via US News & World Report: Oregon Woman Sentenced to 12 Years for Death of Cyclist
ORS 31.730: Standards for award of punitive damages
ORS 30.020: Action for wrongful death