Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Punitive Damages Claims Based Upon Cell Phone Use By Bus Driver Allowed to Proceed to Jury

In the case of Brown v. White, No. 2:21-CV-01387-KSM (E.D. Pa. May 25, 2022 Marston, J.), the court denied a Partial Motion for Summary Judgment seeking the dismissal of claims of punitive damages in a bus accident case.

According to the Opinion, this matter involved a Plaintiff passenger who filed suit against a Greyhound bus driver and his employers alleging, in part, that the driver was reckless in using his cell phone while driving a bus on an overnight trip with 22 passengers.

The record before the court also indicated that, while the Plaintiff slept for most of the trip, she allegedly woke up twice when the bus veered onto rumble strips on the edge of the road. She was also allegedly awoken again at 4:45 a.m. when the bus rear-ended a tractor trailer. It was alleged that the tractor trailer was illuminated and clearly visible but that the bus driver allegedly did not see the tractor trailer until immediately before impact. It was also asserted that the bus was traveling at 72 mph at the time.

In its Opinion, the court noted that, under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages are an extreme remedy that may be awarded only when a Plaintiff has established that a Defendant has acted in any outrageous fashion due to either the Defendant’s evil motive or his or her reckless indifference to the rights of others. The court further noted that a Defendant acts recklessly where his or her conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his or her conduct negligent.

Judge Marston noted in her Opinion that, while cell phone usage while driving, without more, is typically insufficient to support a finding of recklessness, courts applying Pennsylvania law have held that cell phone usage may rise to the level of recklessness where aggravating factors render the cell phone usage particularly egregious.

In this case, the court found that a reasonable jury could find that the bus driver was using his cell phone while driving. The court noted that a dash cam video from ten (10) seconds before the accident appeared to show a glowing light in the bus driver’s lap near his left hand, which a reasonable jury could understand to be from a cell phone.

The court additionally noted that the bus driver’s cell phone records showed that he used a substantial amount of data in the three (3) hour window around the accident.

The court additionally emphasized that the bus driver was driving a large bus with twenty-two (22) passengers on an overnight trip and that the bus driver was driving a fast as the bus could possibly go, that the bus driver was possibly driving with one (1) hand on the steering wheel. The court also pointed to evidence that the bus driver never tapped the brakes prior to the subject rear-end collision.

The court noted that there were several aggravating factors present in the case that could render the bus driver’s cell phone usage particularly egregious. As such, since the court found that a reasonable jury could find that the bus driver was reckless under the circumstances, the court refused to dismiss the Plaintiff’s punitive damages claims by way of this partial Motion for Summary Judgment.

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

Source: “Digest of Recent Opinions.” Pennsylvania Law Weekly (June 24, 2022).

Source of image:  www.pexels.com.

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