Malice Argued In OC Pedestrian Fatality Case

SNOW HILL – The family of a Pennsylvania man struck and killed while crossing Coastal Highway in June 2007 have renewed efforts to seek $1 million in punitive damages against the driver of the vehicle, raising an interesting debate about the existence or absence of malice in the case.

Attorneys for the family of Tyler Adams, of Easton, Pa., struck and killed by a vehicle on Coastal Highway in June 2007 late last month, filed an amended complaint seeking $1 million in punitive damages against the driver, then 19-year-old Brian Scott of Orwigsburg, Pa. The amended complaint was filed about two months after a Circuit Court judge denied a motion seeking punitive damages, effectively dismissing that portion of the case, while the portion of the civil suit seeking $750,000 in compensatory damages continued on a parallel course.

However, the attorneys for the victim’s family last month filed an amended complaint seeking punitive damages, reiterating the belief Scott acted with actual malice during the events leading up to the accident, making him liable for punitive damages under Maryland law. Scott’s attorney, Ernest Cornbrooks, subsequently filed another motion for summary judgment, claiming punitive damages are not available under Maryland’s wrongful death stature and are not recoverable under Maryland law for unintentional torts absent a showing of malice.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on June 17, 2007, Adams and a friend, Dale Blankenship, also of Easton, attempted to cross Coastal Highway between 32nd and 33rd streets when they were struck by a southbound vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, driven by Scott. Adams was killed in the crash.

Absent any substantial criminal charges against Scott, the victim’s family filed a civil suit in August 2007 seeking a combined $1.75 million in compensatory and punitive damages against the driver. In September, Cornbrooks successfully argued against the punitive portion of the suit, citing punitive damages cannot be awarded without the existence of actual malice. The plaintiffs then filed an amended complaint, followed by another motion for summary judgment by Scott’s attorney.

Essentially, the argument revolves around the issue of intent. The plaintiffs argue Scott acted maliciously that night because he drank while underage, decided to get behind the wheel, sped through a red light and struck Adams before continuing on after the collision. However, the defense argues the collision was simply a tragic accident contributed to by the deceased, who had also been drinking and was not in a marked crosswalk.

According to the victim’s response to Scott’s latest motion for summary judgment filed last week, the defendant opens a statement of facts by claiming the decedent “darted out in front of him” and “he was unable to avoid striking Adams.”

“Scott seeks to avoid a claim for punitive damages by presenting a picture of a traffic ‘accident’ occurring as a result of an unavoidable set of circumstances set in motion by acts of the decedent,” the response to the motion for summary judgment reads.

“However, in truth, Scott was drinking, traveling at a high rate of speed, going through a red light when everyone else in the car was yelling for him to look out for pedestrians, and despite their warnings and the absence of vehicles to either side, he ran them down and kept going Presented with all of the facts, a trier of facts can clearly and readily conclude that Scott acted with real malice.”

In short, the plaintiffs do not assert Scott intentionally ran into Adams, but his actions leading up to the collision constitutes malice.

“Although it is not alleged that Scott intentionally killed Tyler Adams, the plaintiff can, nonetheless, establish that Scott acted with actual malice,” the response reads. “In this case, actual malice can be proved based on Scott’s ‘deliberate, reckless and callous actions before and after the accident’.”

The response goes on to list several reasons why the standard of actual malice is met in the case, not the least of which was Scott has said he understood he was drinking underage and illegally, he was offered a ride by a sober driver yet refused and acknowledged that he understood he was impaired and should not have been driving.

“Thus, he consciously and deliberately chose to drive anyway, knowing that his conduct was both illegal and dangerous,” the document reads.

However, the defense’s motion for summary judgment recounts an equal number of reasons the presence of actual malice can’t be proven in the case, and therefore, the $1 million in punitive damages sought by the plaintiff should not be awarded. The motion cites several reasons including Scott was only driving between 30 and 40 mph at the time of the accident, the light was yellow when he passed through the intersection. The motion also states Adams was not in a crosswalk when he “darted” in front of Scott and he didn’t have enough time to stop to avoid hitting the victim.

For those reasons, the motion states Scott did not act with actual malice that fateful night, and the court cannot award punitive damages in the case based on implied malice, as the plaintiffs are suggesting in their response.