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CELL PHONE USE ALONE WON’T SUPPORT PUNITIVE DAMAGE AWARD IN GEORGIA ACCIDENT CLAIM

Posted by Susan J. Levy

The facts underlying the case of Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass, Inc. are undisputed: Defendant truck driver was looking at his cell phone attempting to locate a number when he rear-ended the Plaintiff, who had stopped behind traffic for a red light. 2011 Ga. App. LEXIS 816 (2011). Defendant told the investigating police officer that he was not paying attention to the road at the time of the accident and admitted liability at trial.

Plaintiff argued that she was entitled to an award of punitive damages. Specifically, she argued that Defendant’s habitual use of the phone while driving coupled with his knowledge that doing so was dangerous (as evidenced by his instructions to company employees not to use their mobile phones while driving), authorized a punitive damage award.

Georgia Law provides for punitive damages “only in such tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the Defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b). Additionally, under Georgia law, a mere violation of the uniform rules of the road will not support a punitive damages claim against a driver. Carter v. Spells, 229 Ga. App. 441, 442 (1997). Instead, “Georgia courts have required that the collision result from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as driving while intoxicated or speeding excessively.” Brooks v.Gray, 262 Ga. App. 232, 233 (2003) (internal quotations marks and citations omitted); Benton v. Anderson, 295 Ga. App. 190, 191 (2008); Doctoroff v. Perez, 273 Ga. App. 560, 561 (2005). In analyzing whether a “pattern or policy of dangerous driving” exists, courts look at both objective and subjective factors. Objective factors include the seriousness of the traffic offense at the time of accident. Subjective factors include whether there are any aggravating circumstances. In this case, there were neither objective nor subjective factors that justify punitive damages.

The Court in Lindsey upheld the issuance of summary judgment on the punitive damage claim, focusing on the current Georgia Law governing cell phone usage while driving. Since the proper use of a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle is legal in Georgia, the Court reasoned, evidence of mobile phone use alone did not justify punitive damages.

The Court noted that while the Defendant driver did have a pattern of talking on his cell phone while driving, there was no evidence that he regularly drove dangerously. Specifically, the Court found the record lacked “evidence that Defendant driver was speeding, driving while under the influence, or that he had a history of distraction-related accident, traffic violations, or other evidence that would show a pattern of dangerous driving or other aggravating circumstances so as to authorize an award of punitive damages.” Id. at *4.

The Court affirmed partial summary judgment on Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, but not before issuing a stern warning: “we would stress that our opinion in this case should not be read for the proposition that punitive damages are never available in a case where a driver causes an accident because he or she was distracted while talking on a wireless communication device.” Id. at *5. (emphasis added).