Recently, I addressed the issue of punitive damage claims in cases arising out of personal injuries/death where the defendant was driving drunk. I am now writing about whether punitive damages claims are justified in a case where it is believed the Defendant was using a mobile device while trying to operate his or her car at the same time. Cell phone use, including texting, surfing the web, emailing and talking on the phone while driving is a real problem which requires deterrence. The fact is people are being injured because someone wants to check their email, post to Facebook, text their friend or talk on their cell phone. Using a cell phone while driving requires attention and concentration that distracts drivers’ attention from the road.
Recently, in Deringer v. Li, No. GD10-019081, a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, overruled preliminary objections which would have thrown out a punitive damage claim in which the Plaintiff alleged the Defendant was using a mobile device and caused an accident. In the case, the Plaintiff claimed that the Defendant was using a mobile phone when he drove his vehicle into the rear end of the motorcycle operated by the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff claimed that if the Defendant was utilizing a mobile phone to text, call or use the internet, then such conduct was reckless and justified the imposition of punitive damages. The Defendant filed preliminary objections seeking to dismiss the claim for punitive damages. Specifically, the Defendant argued that such conduct constitutes mere negligence. The Defendant also noted that the legislature has not made cell phone use while operating a car illegal.
The Court disagreed and overruled the preliminary objections by Order. The Defendant had argued that he was not using his cell phone and the Court noted that the Defendants could revisit this issue in a Motion for Summary if it was determined that the cell phone was not in use at the time of the accident.
The significance of the Court’s ruling is that the Court, similar to cases involving drunk driving, was required to perform an analysis of whether the conduct at issue (use of a mobile device while operating a vehicle) could properly support a claim for punitive damages. Similar to the cases involving drunk driving, just because the Defendant was using his or her cell phone is not going to automatically entitle a plaintiff to a punitive damages award. In order to obtain a punitive damages award, an attorney will need develop more evidence to establish outrageous conduct.