September 2013 Punitive Damages Update

Home » Legal Updates » September 2013 Punitive Damages Update

The Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County finds that punitive damages are not available to a plaintiff in an automobile crash when the negligent driver may be distracted by looking at their GPS while driving without evidence that the driver was actually looking at the moment of impact.

Judge Nealon found in Rockwell v. Knott and New Prime, No. 12 CV 1114 (Lack Co. Aug. 13, 2013), that summary judgment was appropriate on the issue of punitive damages when a tortfeasor was driving while looking at a GPS device rather than the roadway and, as a result of not looking at the road, the defendant caused a crash.

Typically punitive damages are extraordinary damages and only available in extreme cases where a party does, or fails to do something, so patently egregious that the court system deems it necessary to punish said party and deter others from doing something similar.  This is often an issue in drunken driving or other alcohol related cases.

In this case of first impression, the court held that looking away from the road at a GPS program on a smart phone to the point of distraction may be reckless conduct to support a punitive damages claim, however, the evidence in this particular case was lacking any proof that the Defendant driver was actually viewing the GPS as he made a turn and caused the crash.  As such, that portion of the plaintiff’s claim was dismissed.  However, it is important to note that this case does leave open the idea of punitive damages for distracted driving if the facts fit.

To read the full opinion, please click here.