Punitive Damages for Motor Vehicle Accidents Caused by Texting and Driving

Rich Muth Esquire, and Katie LaDow, Esquire

Distracted driving has become one of the leading causes of motor vehicle accidents in the United States.  Each day, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in car accidents caused by distracted drivers.  Each year, approximately 421,000 people are injured in accidents caused by distracted drivers.  Of those 421,000 accidents, over 330,000 accidents are attributable to drivers who were texting or using their cell phones while driving.  This means over 78% of all distracted driving accidents are caused by individuals who were using their cell phones while driving.

In the case of Hilliard v. Panezich, No. 1988 of 2015 (C.P. Lawrence Co. Dec. 1, 2017 Cox, J.), the court denied Defendant’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment in an automobile accident case where the Plaintiff, who sought punitive damages, alleged the Defendant was driving under the influence of marijuana and was also looking down at his cell phone to change the music at the time of the accident.  Judge Cox, in his decision denying Defendant’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, related to Plaintiff’s damages claim, reasoned that a number of state and federal trial court decisions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania indicated that allegations of recklessness, beyond mere cell phone use, may be required to allow a punitive damages claim to proceed beyond the summary judgment stage.  In the instant case, Judge Cox found that Defendant’s conduct of driving under the influence, speeding, failing to observe a stop sign, and looking at his cell phone while operating his vehicle, allowed the Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to move forward.

Judge Cox’s reasoning in the Hillard case was confirmed by Judge Masland in Manning v. Barber No. 17-7915 Civil (C.P. Cumb. Co. June 21, 2018 Masland, J., Beck, J., and Placey, J.).  In Manning, the Plaintiff’s complaint stated that Plaintiff’s vehicle was stopped at a red light with another vehicle stopped behind it. The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant failed to stop for the traffic light and rear-ended the second vehicle, causing it to strike the rear of the Plaintiff’s vehicle. The Complaint alleged that, at the time of the accident, the Defendant was not looking at the roadway because she was distracted while looking at and/or texting on her cell phone.  The Plaintiff’s complaint sought punitive damages and alleged that the Defendant acted with recklessness because she was texting/using her cell phone immediately before the accident.  The Defendant filed Preliminary Objections to Plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness and the punitive damages request.  In ruling on the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections, the Court stated that there remains “a lack of Pennsylvania appellate case law in the context of distracted driving cases where the tortfeasor is distracted by the use of a cellular phone at the time of the accident.”  The Court in Manning further reasoned that, absent other factors like those present in the Hillard case discussed above, texting while driving was negligent behavior not reckless behavior and a plaintiff would not be permitted to seek punitive damages.

The risks and liability associated with driving while texting have been well publicized and are generally understood by drivers.  However, many people do not know that the sender of a text message could potentially be held liable if an accident is caused by texting and the sender of the message knew the receiver was operating a motor vehicle.

In 2016, the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania raised the issue of text sender liability in the case Gallatin v. Gargiulo (C.P. Lawrence Co., 2016 Hodge, J.).  The Plaintiff in Gallatin was driving a motorcycle when he was struck by another vehicle and dragged 100 feet on the roadway before his death.  The driver of the vehicle that killed Mr. Gallatin was texting at the time of the accident.  The decedent’s family filed an action for negligence and wrongful death against the driver of the vehicle and the two individuals who were of accused of texting her at the time of the accident.  The two individuals whom the driver was texting filed Preliminary Objections in an attempt to be dismissed from the lawsuit.  However, the Court denied the Preliminary Objections and reasoned, citing Kubert v. Best, 75 A.3d 1214 (N.J. Super. 2013), that “a third party can be held liable if he/she encourages another in violating a duty…The sender of a text message can be liable for sending a message while the recipient is operating a motor vehicle if the sender knew or had reason to know the recipient was driving.[1]

If you have any questions about the possibility of being held liable for texting while driving, contact Dawson R. Muth or Katherine E. LaDow at Lamb McErlane PC.

Dawson “Rich” Muth is a partner at Lamb McErlane and concentrates his practice in criminal defense, civil litigation and personal injury. 610.701.3272.

Katherine (Katie) LaDow is an associate in the litigation department. She concentrates her practice in the areas of state civil litigation, family law and health law.  610-701-3261.

[1] While recent Pennsylvania case law indicates that a person who sends a text message to someone who is operating a motor vehicle may be liable for damages if the person receiving the text message gets in an accident, a prospective plaintiff must file suit in an appropriate court that has jurisdiction over all named defendants.  The Court in Ford v. Leal, No. 3471-CV-2016 (C.P. Monroe Co. Mar. 15, 2018 Harlacher Sibum, J.) which sustained Defendant’s Preliminary Objections asserting that the Pennsylvania Court did not have jurisdiction over the Defendant when the accident did not occur in Pennsylvania, the Defendant did not live in Pennsylvania, and the Defendant did not own property in Pennsylvania. The Court held that an alleged out-of-state automobile accident alone is not enough for a Pennsylvania Court to establish personal jurisdiction over a defendant under the Long Arm Statute, even when the Plaintiff alleges a lasting injury that continues while the Plaintiff resides in Pennsylvania.