Sessions asks Vermont Supreme Court for legal advice

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(Host) A federal court judge has taken the unusual step of asking the Vermont Supreme Court for legal advice.

The issue is whether punitive damages can be applied in a wrongful death case.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The case stems from a tragic car accident three years ago that killed two teenagers in Orleans County.

The operator of the vehicle was 14 at the time and didn’t have a driver’s license. He was driving a high performance car bought by his mother.

The accident led to lawsuits and counter-lawsuits. The case is in federal court, because one side is from Vermont, and the other from Maryland.

The families of the teenagers killed in the crash are seeking punitive damages. Those are payments designed to act as punishment against the driver.

And it’s on this point that Judge William Sessions turned to the state Supreme Court for guidance. Attorney Vince Illuzzi represents the estate of one the teenagers killed in the crash. Illuzzi is seeking punitive damages against the driver. And he says it’s still an open area of Vermont law.

(Illuzzi) “In the legal world, unless there’s an explicit statute or a case on point, the legal question is open to interpretation until it’s finally resolved by a court of higher jurisdiction, in this case the Vermont Supreme Court.”

(Dillon) Even though the case is in federal court, Illuzzi says Sessions has to apply Vermont law.

(Illuzzi) “So Judge Sessions said that instead of me guessing what the Vermont Supreme Court will do with these facts, a survival case where someone eventually dies, I will ask the Vermont Supreme Court to render that decision, and will apply that decision, the law that’s handed down in that decision, to the facts in this case, and allow the case to proceed forward in federal court.”

(Dillon) Last week, Judge Sessions sent a legal request to the state Supreme Court asking the justices to rule on the question.

The high court’s decision will set precedent for future wrongful death cases that involve punitive damages.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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