Friday, July 20, 2018

Recklessness and Punitive Damages Claims Stricken in Alleged Cell Phone Distracted Driving Case

In the Cumberland County case of Manning v. Barber No. 17-7915 Civil (C.P. Cumb. Co. June 21, 2018 Masland, J., Beck, J., and Placey, J.) (Op. by Masland, J.), the court granted a Defendant’s Preliminary Objections and dismissed a Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim in a case in which the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant driver was texting while driving. 

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff’s vehicle was stopped at a red light with another vehicle stopped behind it. The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant failed to stop for the traffic light and rear-ended the second vehicle, causing it to strike to the rear of the Plaintiff’s vehicle. The Plaintiff additionally alleged that, at the time of the accident, the Defendant was not looking at the roadway because she distracted while looking at and/or texting on her cell phone.

In the Complaint, the Plaintiff alleged allegations of recklessness and sought an award of punitive damages. The Defendants filed Preliminary Objections to the Complaint asserting that the allegation of cell phone use alone, absent other indicia of recklessness, was insufficient to support an award of punitive damages.  

The court initially rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that the Defendants had improperly attacked or challenged the legality of the punitive damages sought in the Complaint by way of Preliminary Objections.  The court in this matter distinguished the Plaintiff’s reliance upon a case in which a Defendant had utilized a demurrer to attack a claim of punitive damages.
In this Manning case, the Defendants asserted Preliminary Objections on the basis of a failure of a pleading to conform to law or rule of court or inclusion of scandalous or impertinent matter...” under Pa.R.C.P. 1028(a)(2).  

The court found that the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections were appropriate given that the Defendant was requesting the court to strike the allegations of recklessness and the demand for punitive damages as improper due to the fact that those claims were based upon allegations that only constituted negligence. 

The Manning court went on to address the merits of the Preliminary Objections presented.   After reviewing the general law pertaining to punitive damages, the court confirmed that there remains “a lack of Pennsylvania appellate case law in the context of distracted driving cases where the tortfeasor is distracted by the use of a cellular phone at the time of the accident.”  

The court did note that there were a number of trial court decisions from across Pennsylvania regarding claims for punitive damages in cell phone cases. Based upon these trial court decisions, the Manning court concluded that the mere use of a cell phone absent additional indicia of recklessness was not enough to sustain a claim for punitive damages.  

In reviewing the Plaintiff’s Complaint, the note noted that the additional allegations presented by the Plaintiff were simply boilerplate allegations that the Defendant was inattentive and going too fast, all of which allegations the court found only amounted to a classic claim of negligence, and not  recklessness.

The court in Manning additionally rejected the Plaintiff’s presentation of a policy-based argument that texting while driving should constitute per se recklessness. The court stated that, while this argument maybe considered by a future appellate court, in the absence of any such appellate guidance, the Manning court declined to accept the Plaintiff’s argument in this regard.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

I send thanks to Attorney Andrew T. Rhoades of the Camphill, Pennsylvania office of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin for bringing this decision to my attention.  

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