By: Edward F. Kuhn, III, Esq.
The use of a cell phone by a commercial truck driver at the time of a motor vehicle accident may subject the driver to punitive damages. In Ehler v. Old Dominion Freight Line, No. 2018-00307 (C.P. Lebanon August 30, 2018), filed in the Court of Common Pleas, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, a commercial truck driver was sued for causing a 64-car accident during a winter storm. The plaintiffs alleged that the truck driver was on his cell phone at the time of the accident. The plaintiffs sought punitive damages as they alleged that the use of a cell phone by a commercial truck driver under severe weather conditions is reckless. The truck driver filed preliminary objections seeking to strike the allegations of recklessness thus eliminating the possibility of punitive damages. The court overruled the preliminary objections, thereby allowing the plaintiffs to continue to seek punitive damages pending further discovery.
Punitive damages are used to punish a defendant’s behavior and to deter such future conduct. When a plaintiff alleges that a defendant was negligent in causing damages to the plaintiff, the plaintiff is entitled to seek such compensation as lost wages, unpaid medical bills and pain and suffering. A defendant must be found to have acted recklessly through outrageous or willful misconduct demonstrating an evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others in order to pursue punitive damages. A plaintiff must allege specific facts that demonstrate this type of behavior in a complaint. A defendant can challenge a plaintiff’s ability to seek punitive damages through preliminary objections. Preliminary objections are used to strike portions of a plaintiff’s complaint prior to discovery to eliminate irrelevant or inappropriate allegations.
The defendant-truck driver sought to strike the claims for punitive damages by arguing that merely being on the phone while driving does not amount to reckless conduct. However, Pennsylvania’s Distracted Driving Law prohibits commercial truck drivers from using a cell phone while driving except for contacting emergency personnel. Additionally, it is alleged that snow produced “white-out” conditions at the time of the accident. The court held that under these circumstances it was even more important for a truck driver to take extra precautions while driving in severe weather conditions.
However, since the driver’s estate is proceeding in the defense of this lawsuit, it is unknown who the driver was on the phone with at the time of the accident and even if there was any actual connection between being on the phone and the happening of the accident. Even with these unknown facts, the court held the allegations were specific enough to warrant keeping the possibility of punitive damages alive pending further discovery. The court did hint that these allegations could be stricken in the future if facts are uncovered during discovery that do not support them.
In a time when distracted driving is a major safety concern to anyone on the roads, it is important to thoroughly analyze and scrutinize a plaintiff’s complaint to determine the viability of a plaintiff’s allegations of reckless conduct that could open the door for punitive damages. Punitive damages can lead to increased jury verdicts as it allows a jury to not only compensate a plaintiff, but to punish a defendant and deter such future behavior. Therefore, preliminary objections must be strongly considered to challenge these types of allegations during the early stages of litigation.