Drivers who engage in text messaging while traveling down the freeway at 65 mph or more present a serious danger to everyone else on the road. The act of reading or composing a text diverts a motorist’s hands, mind and eyes from the task of driving. While texting and driving is never a safe practice, the danger is particularly acute when the driver is behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound fully loaded tractor-trailer.
Although commercial drivers are subject to a ban from texting while driving a tractor-trailer, some commercial drivers disregard this critical safety rule. Atlanta personal injury attorney David Montlick believes that more aggressive enforcement tools need to be implemented to discourage truck drivers from using their cell phone to text while driving. Montlick suggests that the assessment of punitive damages against truck drivers that text and drive may provide a powerful new tool for targeting commercial drivers that engage in this unsafe driving practice.
Montlick and Associates reviews cases that involve interesting legal issues in other states. In one such recent case a trial judge has agreed that three plaintiffs in a personal injury lawsuit can seek punitive damages against a truck driver who was talking on his cell phone when he collided with the plaintiffs’ vehicle. Although the plaintiff’s attorney in the case indicated there is little state case law on the applicability of a punitive damage award based on cell phone use as the cause of a crash, a number of federal court decisions in that state have approved punitive damages.
These federal court decisions were particularly likely to authorize punitive damages where the defendant was a commercial truck driver. The rationale for holding commercial drivers liable for punitive damages is that professional operators of tractor-trailers can be expected to have a better understanding of the risk associated with distracted driving.
The imposition of punitive damages in personal injury lawsuits involving texting truck drivers is complicated by the incomplete nature of the ban on cell phone use by truckers. The practice of texting and driving is prohibited by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for interstate truckers. The ban includes emailing, instant messaging, sending email, requesting access to a Web page among other activities. However, cell phones case be used for hands-free calling if the cell phone is located in close proximity to the driver, operates with voice or one button commands and uses a Bluetooth or speaker.
Because hands-free use of a cell phone is expressly allowed by the FMCSA, a punitive damage claim is generally more appropriate when a truck driver has been texting or making a call from a handheld phone. If the ban were expanded to prohibit all cell phone use, this could increase the probability of obtaining punitive damages in a trucking accident lawsuit involving a hands-free call. Nevertheless, the determination of appropriateness of punitive damage for a case is very fact specific, and can potentially arise despite the FMCSA’s permitting cell phone use as described.
If courts begin to impose punitive damages against texting truck drivers on a broader basis, the public safety benefits could be significant. While a violation of the ban on texting and handheld use of a cell phone can merit a fine against the truck driver of $2,750 and the trucking company of $11,000, these fines are trivial in the context of a punitive damage award. Trucking companies will experience enormous financial pressure to prevent drivers from using their cell phone when they face the prospect of liability for millions of dollars in punitive damages.
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