Yeardley Love was a 22-year-old student in her fourth year at the University of Virginia. A criminal court found that her boyfriend at the time, George Huguely V, was guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to approximately 23 years in prison. Love's family had originally brought a wrongful death suit, but the claim was dropped after a Maryland Appeals Court affirmed that the Chartis Property Casualty Company was not responsible for paying $6 million.
The new claim was recently filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court. The lawsuit is demanding a jury trial and seeks over $29 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
Huguely came to Love's apartment where a quarrel began that led to her death. Huguely attempted to appeal the ruling of the court in the criminal action; however, the court refused to reassess the matter. Chartis Property Casualty Company denied responsibility in this case initially because they were already ordered to pay on Huguely's behalf in a different civil suit.
The company also contended that because Huguely failed to comply with investigators in the matter they did not have financial responsibility. According to the homeowner's insurance policy, Huguely was contractually obligated to assist (cooperate) with an investigation in the case.
Refusal to Submit to Examination & Questioning
This contractual obligation required that Huguely undergo an examination and address questions relating to the events that led to Love's untimely death. Huguely never responded to multiple requests from the insurer. His attorney explained that his client had invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent. Huguely repeatedly declined “any visit or contact” with company representation and they were thus unable to investigate properly.
In civil actions of personal injury or wrongful death punitive damages may be awarded in rare circumstances. The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that plaintiffs must show that the defendant acted with intent. The actions may have been conducted with malicious intent or related to fraud. This can be a difficult standard to prove in most negligence cases. Punitive damages are specifically awarded to punish the defendant for wrongful acts.
When Punitive Damages May Be Appropriate
The U.S. Supreme Court has outlined three aspects to consider when assessing if punitive damages may be applicable:
- If the conduct or actions were truly “reprehensible”
- Comparing the difference between “actual harm suffered” and the award for damages
- By looking at other similar court case rulings that are comparable
Gross Negligence Standard
A Maryland court ruled on punitive damages in the case of Smith v. Gray Concrete Pipe Company (1972). This was the first time the concept of gross negligence was introduced relative to an award for punitive damages. They defined gross negligence as “wanton or reckless disregard for human life”. The defendant was deemed as being grossly negligent in his operation of motor vehicle, which was considered the “legal equivalent of malice”. The General Assembly has considered whether punitive damages may be appropriate in cases where the defendant was operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs.