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Court of Appeals Declines Punitive Damages For Cell Phone Use

In a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision, Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass Inc., the Court held that the plaintiff could not seek punitive damages when the defendant caused a car wreck because he was using his cell phone.

The facts of the case are relatively straightforward; the defendant was driving his truck to a job site when he looked down at his cell phone to find a telephone number.  Because he was looking at his cell phone and not the road, he did not see that the traffic in front of him had stopped.  The defendant failed to notice the cars in front of him until it was too late, and he rear ended the car in front of him.

The injured plaintiff sued seeking punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.  For those of you who read this blog that are not lawyers, punitive damages are pretty rare, and are awarded when there is evidence of intentional conduct or a “conscious indifference to consequences”.  The damages awarded in most personal injury cases are called compensatory damages.  These are damages for lost wages, medical expenses and pain and suffering.

The Court declined to allow punitive damages in the Lindsey case because using a cell phone in Georgia while driving is permissible.  The Court also said that the defendant was not speeding, was not under the influence, nor did the defendant have a history of distraction related accidents showing a pattern dangerous driving.

This case is interesting because it says that cell phone use by itself will not lead to punitive damages.  The Court, however, leaves the door open for punitive damages claims when cell phones are involved and there are other aggravating circumstances.  So for example, if a person is speeding while using a cell phone, this may lead to punitive damages.  Or if a person has caused a wreck before because of cell phone use, then there could be a potential claim for punitive damages.

Bottom line, be careful when you are driving and using a cell phone.  The best policy is to not talk on your cell phone when you are driving.

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Posted in: Recent Appellate Decisions