Does Driving While Distracted by a Cell Phone Justify Punitive Damages in Georgia?
In Georgia and most other states, alcohol impaired drivers that cause fatal accidents can be subject to punitive damages because of the wrongfulness of their conduct and the priority of discouraging such conduct in the future. As the number of traffic-related fatalities associated with cellphone use rises, many traffic safety experts have drawn comparisons between alcohol impaired drivers and drivers distracted by cell phones. Some traffic safety experts claim that cell phone distracted driving is the "New DUI" because the types of risk and magnitude of risk associated with cell phone use while driving is similar to that associated with alcohol impaired driving.
A study conducted by the University of Utah suggests that cell phone use while driving may be even more dangerous than drunk driving. The study used a simulator to compare drivers with a BAC over .08 percent; drivers texting or talking on a cell phone; and unimpaired drivers concentrating entirely on the roadway. The study found that drivers using a cell phone were actually more likely to be involved in a collision because their response times were slower than legally intoxicated drivers. The researchers conclude that drivers using cell phones may be as dangerous, or more dangerous, than drivers under the influence of alcohol.
Although the Georgia Supreme Court has yet to address whether cell phone use alone is sufficient to justify a punitive damage award, the issue has been addressed by the Georgia Court of Appeals. In Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass, Inc, 2011 WL 4057533 (Ga.App. Sep. 14, 2011), the plaintiff sought punitive damages for injuries suffered in a crash caused by the defendant. The defendant admitted looking at the display of a cell phone immediately prior to the collision. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment with regard to the plaintiff's request for punitive damages, which was granted in part, and the plaintiff appealed.
The appellate court initially noted that the standard for conduct justifying punitive damages in Georgia requires clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in "willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences."
The plaintiff on appeal argued that the defendant admitted often using his cell phone while behind the wheel despite recognizing that the conduct was dangerous. The plaintiff also cited multiple studies like the one above that indicate driving while talking on a cell phone is more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. The plaintiff contended that this evidence demonstrated a pattern of dangerous driving.
In rejecting the plaintiff's argument, the court reasoned that the cases involving Georgia car crashes with punitive damage awards generally involve speeding or DUI rather than violations of rules of the road. The appellate court indicated that even "gross negligence" is insufficient to merit punitive damages. The court suggested that another aggravating factor like speeding, DUI or a pattern of prior distracted driving accidents might be sufficient to establish a pattern of dangerous driving that would justify punitive damages.
Despite this decision, the law often evolves and changes as new evidence emerges. Our Georgia personal injury attorneys would certainly like to see punitive damages become the norm for texting drivers. Given the growing body of evidence that the practice is at least as risky as drunk driving and the increasing death toll from distracted driving, the rational for imposing punitive damages for speeding and DUI but not distracted driving would seem tenuous at best.
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If you or your loved one is injured or a family member dies in a crash caused by a texting driver, our experienced Atlanta distracted driving lawyers at Montlick and Associates have been representing those who suffer serious injuries throughout all of Georgia and the Southeast for over thirty years, including but not limited to Albany, Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Gainesville, Macon, Marietta, Rome, Roswell, Savannah, Smyrna, Valdosta, Warner Robins and all smaller cities and rural areas in the state. No matter where you are located our attorneys are just a phone call away, and we will even come to you. Call us 24 hours a day/7 days a week for your Free Consultation at 1-800-LAW-NEED (1-800-529-6333). You can also visit us online at www.montlick.com and use our Free Case Evaluation Form or 24-hour Live Online Chat.