Federal Court Seeks Vermont Court Opinion on Punitive Damages

July 10, 2007

A lawsuit over a 2004 car accident is posing a legal dilemma for Vermont courts, which are being asked to decide whether punitive damages can be sought in wrongful death cases.

The Vermont Supreme Court has never ruled one way or another, and U.S. District Judge William Sessions III last week put a lawsuit on hold so he could ask the state’s high court to issue an advisory opinion to resolve the question.

“This case could have a significant effect on the rights of victims,” said Sheila Ware, president of the Vermont Trial Lawyers Association. “It is a really interesting issue. The Supreme Court doesn’t normally give advisory opinions.”

The crash, which happened near Lake Willoughby, killed two teenagers.

The suit, which was filed in federal court, claims that unlicensed 14-year-old driver Charles Meyer drove recklessly, causing the car to careen into a rock ledge, killing Norman Woolard, 16, and Philip Leno, 17.

Meyer and his mother, former summer resident Julie Jensen of Irving, Texas, say they aren’t responsible and that Woolard and Leno contributed to the crash.

Under rules adopted in 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court doesn’t have to answer Sessions’ request, but it will probably do so anyway, according to Mark Heath, attorney for Jensen and Meyer.

“It’s an unusual procedure,” Heath said. “There’s only been a handful of cases where the federal court has asked the Vermont Supreme Court for a ruling.”

Trial lawyers around the state are watching the case closely, according to Ware.


Information from: The Burlington Free Press,

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