If you are in a Car Accident – Use of a GPS Could Result in Punitive Damages
A Pennsylvania county trial judge has acknowledged that a driver who gets in an accident while using a GPS device may be found liable for reckless indifference and obliged to pay punitive damages, but only if the injured plaintiff can prove the driver had completely diverted his or her attention away from the road at a critical time.
A Driver, an Accident and a GPS
In the case before the judge, a driver of a van owned by the driver’s employer stopped at an intersection in order to make a left hand turn. While waiting for traffic to clear, the van driver looked at a global positioning system (GPS) device. As a motorcyclist entered the intersection, traveling toward the van, the van driver accelerated into his planned left turn. The motorcycle struck the van and the motorcyclist was injured.
The motorcyclist claimed that the van driver was “fidgeting” with his GPS device for a substantial time and had his eyes off the road for a substantial time. The van driver disagreed, claiming that he used a GPS application on his cell phone to find his destination and had placed the phone in the lower center console of his van, with the screen angled toward him as he drove. The van driver admitted glancing down at the cell phone as he waited to make the turn but denied having his eyes off the road when he made the turn.
The injured motorcyclist countered that the van driver’s employer prohibited its employee drivers from using GPS devices, and that the employer had failed to monitor its employees and to educate them about the dangers of using GPS devices while driving.
The judge recognized that the case presented a “novel issue of apparent first impression.” Recognizing that a driver who is looking at a GPS device at the time of an accident could be found liable for reckless indifference and punitive damages if the driver “completely diverts attention” from the roadway to “observe a low positioned GPS,” the judge focused on the facts of the case. Noting that the motorcyclist did not claim that the van driver was still looking at the GPS when he made the left turn, the judge dismissed punitive damages from the case.
The judge observed that punitive damages claims against motorists have traditionally been allowed in Pennsylvania cases only where a driver unreasonably ignored known or obvious risks in a manner that posed a high risk of harming others. For example, Pennsylvania courts have allowed punitive damage claims in cases involving actions such as drunken driving, operating a truck with an improperly secured load caused by a broken loading rack and ignoring a stop sign in a construction zone.
The consequences for using electronic devices are only just emerging in the law, as their use is relatively recent. Pennsylvania has no state wide motor vehicle laws banning or restricting cell phone or GPS use while driving. In fact, across the U.S. no state bans all cell phone use while driving, although thirty-seven states ban all cell phone use by young drivers and twelve states prohibit using hand held cell phones and electronic devices while driving. Forty one states, including Pennsylvania, ban texting while driving. In the case involving the van and the motorcycle, the judge pointed out that because texting while driving poses a much higher likelihood of driver distraction, it clearly poses a greater risk to pedestrians and other motorists than does a driver’s merely talking on a cell phone or using a GPS device.
No Pennsylvania appellate court has yet ruled on whether punitive damages claims can be brought against a driver for using an interactive wireless device at the time of an accident. Throughout Pennsylvania, at the trial court level, judges have generally found that the use of an electronic device while driving is not always negligent but depends on the facts of the case. But in light of the recent state wide ban on texting, now it is always negligent to text while driving.
Use Caution with GPS Devices
It is important that drivers recognize that the position of the GPS device, the extent of the driver’s distraction, and the distance traveled by the vehicle during that period of diversion will be critical factors in a court or jury’s decision whether a driver engaged in outrageous conduct and is thus liable for punitive damages. Positioning your GPS device on the dashboard or windshield will support your claim that you were attentive to the road while using your GPS device. A driver who momentarily glances at a GPS device affixed to his or her windshield while maintaining a peripheral view of the road likely would not be liable for reckless indifference or wanton conduct, but a driver who completely looks away from the road to consult a GPS device located in his or her lap or somewhere other than the dashboard or windshield is at risk for a punitive damages award.
See Rockwell v. Knott.
For an overview of state laws on cell phone and texting bans, see www.ghsa.org.