Are punitive damages claims justified in a case where Defendants allegedly caused an accident while talking on his cell phone?  The answer seems to be “maybe.” 

Previously, I addressed the issue of whether punitive damages claims are justified in a case where it is believed the Defendants was using a mobile device while trying to operate his or her car at the same time. Now, there is a split in the decisions among the Trial Courts in Pennsylvania. 

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 Defendant was using a mobile device and caused an accident. In the case, Plaintiff claimed that the Defendant was using a mobile phone when he drove his vehicle into the rear end of the motorcycle operating by the Plaintiff. 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. 

Defendant filed preliminary objections seeking to dismiss the claim for punitive damages. Specifically, Defendant argued that such conduct constitutes mere negligence.  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, and Defendant had argued that he was not using his cell phone. The Court noted that 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. 

In Xander v. Kiss, No. CV-2010-11945, a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County granted preliminary objections and dismissed a punitive damage claim against a driver who allegedly caused an accident while talking on his cell phone. In this case, Plaintiff claimed Defendant driver crossed lanes of travel and caused an accident while talking on the cell phone.  The trial court ruled that viewing the facts in the Complaint in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, it was only alleged that the “Defendant simply lost control of his vehicle while speaking on his cellular phone, causing a motor vehicle accident. . . .”  The trial court noted that such alleged facts may support a claim of negligence, but the allegations do not arise to a level of an evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of the Plaintiff as required for a punitive damage claim. 
Obviously, this decision is in direct conflict with the decision in Deringer. The significance of these Court’s rulings is that the Court is required to perform an analysis of whether the conduct at issue (use of a mobile device while operating a car) could properly support a claim for punitive damages. 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.  Therefore, it is important for an attorney to prompt and thorough investigate these issues before filing a claim for punitive damages under these circumstances.

Joe Cullen is a Shareholder in Stark & Stark’s Yardley, PA office, specializing in Accident & Personal Injury Law. For more information, please contact Mr. Cullen.