We see them every day – its seems like the driver of every 3rd car on the road is distracted. Some are talking on their cell phones, some are texting. Some are checking their e-mail or surfing the web. Some are doing all of the above! But all of them are distracted, and they put the rest of us in danger. As an injury attorney who represents people injured by distracted drivers, it makes me angry. As another driver on the road, distracted drivers make me nervous. As a motorcyclist, distracted drivers scare the hell out of me!
Study after study shows that distracted drivers are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than drunk drivers. But people who would never consider driving drunk don’t even think twice about pulling out their cellphone and updating their facebook status while cruising down the highway at 80 mph.
We all know the behavior is dangerous. We all know the behavior is illegal. Now, Pennsylvania has made it possible to punish distracted drivers for their dangerous behavior.
In most injury cases, the victim is entitled to be fully fully reimbursed for their economic damages as well as non-economic damages like past and future pain and suffering, but juries aren’t allowed to punish the defendant by awarding the Plaintiff more money. Punitive damages are just that – an award of money to the Plaintiff which is meant to punish the Defendant for particularly egregious behavior. Punitive damages are rarely allowed – they are reserved for those cases where a Defendant’s behavior is so careless as to be considered “reckless”.
A recent case in Pennsylvania (Deringer v. Li, No. GD10-019081 pending in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County) has cleared the way for punitive damages to be imposed in cases where a distracted driver causes an accident. The reasoning behind this decision is that the dangers of using a cell phone while driving are so well known and the extent of the distraction necessary to engage in those activities is so great that the behavior goes beyond mere negligence and constitutes reckless behavior. While this is a wonderful decision for Plaintiffs, it is far from the end of the story. Ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide whether to award punitive damages, and if there is an award it will be subject to judicial review. But the threat of punitive damages alone may be enough to change someone’s behavior.
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes the threat of something like punitive damages to get people to change their behavior. Pennsylvanians now face a very real threat that their careless, reckless behavior could result in punitive damages. Hopefully New York follows Pennsylvania’s lead.
Please don’t use your cell phones while driving. The lives of my kids and your kids may depend on it.
Thanks for reading, and drive safe!
Adam M. Gee, Esq.
NY and PA Injury and Accident Attorney
The Ziff Law Firm, LLP
303 William Street
Elmira, NY 14901
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