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The Third Circuit’s Stance: Cell Phone Use While Driving & Punitive Damages (PA)

June 24, 2022

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<p style="text-align: justify;">The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently refused to dismiss the punitive damages claims a plaintiff passenger asserted against a Greyhound bus driver and his employers. In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Brown-v.-White.pdf">Brown v. White</a>,</em> the plaintiff, Jasmine Brown was taking an overnight Greyhound bus from New York City to Pittsburgh in the early morning hours of August 1, 2020 when the defendant bus driver, Harry White, rear-ended a tractor trailer causing Ms. Brown to suffer injuries. A dashcam video from the 10 seconds before the accident appeared to show a glowing light in White's lap near his left hand and his cell phone records show that he used 121.54 MB of data in the three-hour window around the accident. Brown filed suit against Mr. White and his employers, Greyhound and FirstGroup America, asserting that they were vicariously liable for White's negligence and/or recklessness and that they were negligent and/or reckless in hiring, retaining and supervising him. Ms. Brown seeks both compensatory and punitive damages and the defendants moved for partial summary judgment on the punitive damages claim.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages are an extreme remedy that may be awarded only when a plaintiff has established that the defendant acted in an outrageous fashion due to either defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others. Further, punitive damages are available only where a defendant has acted intentionally, willfully, or recklessly – they are not available where a defendant merely acted negligently.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">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. The court ultimately found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the driver was reckless in using his cellphone while driving the bus and the following were deemed to be aggravating factors that rendering his actions particularly egregious: he was operating a large bus overnight with 22 passengers at a speed of 72 miles per hour with one hand on the steering wheel and without tapping the breaks prior to the rear-end collision. As such, the court refused to dismiss Brown’s punitive damages claims. This case demonstrates the court’s discretion in considering the aggravating factors surrounding cell phone use and motor vehicle collisions that support punitive damages claims.</p>
Thanks to Sydney Kockler for her contribution to this post. Please contact <a href="mailto:Haquino@wcmlaw.com">Heather Aquino</a> with any questions.

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