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Are Distracted Drivers at Risk for Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania? Think Before You Pick Up Your Cell Phone While Driving

How many times have you been walking across an intersection when you are cut off by a car that speeds just inches away from you? As the oblivious driver speeds off, unaware of the near-miss, you see the unmistakable silhouette of a cell phone next to his ear. Or, while sitting at a red light, you look over and see the driver next to you texting, or even taking a selfie on her new iPhone 6? Distracted driving is unsafe, reckless, and in too many cases, deadly. Sending a text message that takes only 5 seconds to type is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blindfolded.

Despite laws banning texting while driving, and requiring hands-free cell phone use, over 1000 people are injured every day in this country by distracted driving, according to a study by the CDC. Trial courts in Pennsylvania have been split in deciding whether to allow attorneys to seek punitive damages in cases where a distracted driver is involved in an accident, and the issue has not yet been addressed at the appellate level.

This month, however, Friedman Schuman attorneys scored an important victory in front of a judge in Lehigh County, who is allowing a punitive damage claim against a passenger bus carrier to proceed to trial. The judge agreed with this firm's argument that a common carrier should be held to a higher standard than the driver of a private automobile. Our client, who suffered severe injuries when both of her legs were crushed under a bus driven by a distracted driver, faces a long road to recovery. The ability to pursue punitive damages against the driver and his company are an important step in not only compensating our client appropriately, but also in sending the proper message to the bus company to eliminate distracted driving by its bus drivers.

At best, using a cell phone while driving is dangerous. Under certain circumstances, it can rise to the level of reckless indifference which allows a plaintiff to seek punitive damages. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish a defendant for outrageous/reckless conduct and to deter him and others from similar conduct. As the law surrounding cell phone use while driving continues to develop, we will keep you posted.

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