Archive for November, 2011

At-Fault Driver Distracted by Cell Phone Not Liable for Punitive Damages Absent Evidence of Aggravating Circumstances

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently held that punitive damages are not necessarily warranted where a driver causes a motor vehicle accident while distracted by his or her cell phone. In Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass, Inc., 2011 WL 4057533 (Ga.App. Sep. 14, 2011), the plaintiff sued the defendant for injuries sustained in a collision and sought punitive damages because the defendant admitted that he was looking at his cell phone immediately before the impact. The trial court granted the defendant’s partial motion for summary judgment on the punitive damages claim and the plaintiff appealed. As an initial matter, punitive damages may be awarded only where the defendant’s actions show “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”

On appeal, the plaintiff pointed to evidence that the defendant frequently used his cell phone while driving although he knew it was dangerous and cited several studies showing that talking on a cell phone while driving is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. The plaintiff argued that the evidence established a pattern or policy of driving dangerously. The Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that in cases involving automobile collisions, punitive damages are typically authorized in instances such as excessive speeding or driving while intoxicated, but not when a driver simply violates a rule of the road. Moreover, although the defendant admitted he was distracted by his cell phone, mere negligence, even gross negligence, is not enough to support a claim for punitive damages. In this case, there was no evidence that the defendant was speeding, driving while intoxicated, or that he had a history of distraction-related accidents. The Georgia Court of Appeals clarified that cell phone use does not, without evidence of aggravating circumstances, establish a policy or pattern of dangerous driving. Therefore, the plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages.

For more information, please contact Timothy Buckley III, Esq. at (404) 633-9230.

Subscribe to the Buckley Brown Blog!