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Punitive Damages Denied In Distracted Driving Lawsuit

Sometimes after car accidents, the innocent driver is able to sue the driver-at-fault for damages. Usually, the damages that apply in Pennsylvania car accident cases are compensatory. Compensatory damages include medical bills, lost wages and other financial losses stemming from the accident.

In extreme cases, punitive damages may also be available following car accidents. Punitive damages are in excess of the economic losses suffered by the accident victim and are intended to punish the driver-at-fault for behavior that is either against the law or is otherwise offensive.

Three years ago, a man in a pickup truck rear-ended another motorist while allegedly either using or looking at his cell phone. The motorist sued the man in the pickup and argued that he should be entitled to punitive damages because cellphone-use was responsible for the accident.

The motorist-plaintiff argued that the defendant’s use of a cellphone while driving was reckless, careless and negligent, and that his actions were also wanton and willful. However, a trial court and a U.S. District Court both ruled that the act of using a cellphone while driving could not be concluded as “outrageous behavior” warranting punitive damages.

In Pennsylvania, punitive damages are considered an “extreme remedy” to be applied in situations involving “evil motive or reckless indifference” to another person’s rights. Additionally, while it is illegal to text while driving in Pennsylvania, it is not illegal to use a cellphone while driving.

The court explained that the defendant in this case would have had to have been doing something in addition to using a cellphone when he caused the accident, such as speeding, driving erratically or blatantly disregarding traffic signals, in order for punitive damages to apply.

Source: Pennsylvania Record, “U.S. magistrate judge throws out punitive damages claim against man who used cellphone preceding vehicle accident,” Jon Campisi, April 2, 2012