Monday, April 20, 2015

Centre County Court Decision on Cell Phone Use and Claim for Punitive Damages

In a recent Centre County Court of Common Pleas decision in the case of Gunsallus v. Smith, No. 2013-3765 (C.P. Centre Co. April 7, 2015 Kistler, J.), Judge Thomas K. Kistler granted summary judgment in favor of the defense and dismissed a punitive damages claim against a tortfeasor Defendant based upon cell phone use during the course of a motor vehicle accident.  

The Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages was based upon allegations that the tortfeasor was speeding immediately prior to the accident on a road unfamiliar to him and allegations that the defendant was talking on a cell phone which caused him to drive with his non-dominant hand.  

In its Opinion, the court noted that talking on a cell phone while driving is “conduct which is permitted under Pennsylvania law.”  

After discovery, the Defendant filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment seeking a dismissal of the punitive damages claims on the basis that the Plaintiff did not produce any evidence to prove that the tortfeasor’s conduct was outrageous as required under the law pertaining to punitive damages.  

In his Opinion, Judge Kistler set forth the law of punitive damages and note the court’s role in initially determining whether or not the Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence to take such a claim to the jury.

After noting that there still appears to be no Pennsylvania appellate court decision on the issue of cell phone use as supporting a claim for punitive damages, Judge Kistler ruled that, while the facts presented “may have created a situation that was not the most ideal, taken together, they do not rise to the level of outrageous or reckless conduct” sufficient to allow for a claim for punitive damages to proceed.  

As such, Defendant’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment was granted and the Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages was dismissed with prejudice.  

Anyone desiring a copy of this decision may contact me at


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