Can I Ask for Punitive Damages in a Distracted Driving Claim?

Unlawful Cell Phone Use Is Rampant in California

In a survey of California drivers, more than half said they had been hit or had a close call in the past year with someone who was using a cell phone. Most of us have had a scary moment like this at some point in our lives. To make our roads safer, all of us must agree to put down our phones and focus on what’s in front of us rather than the person on the other end of our screens. This Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we’re joining many other organizations in calling for the end of dangerous cell phone use by drivers.

California has restricted cell phone use among drivers for over a decade now, with relevant statutes being frequently amended as the state tries to stay ahead of new technologies. Currently, California Vehicle Code §23123.5 prohibits drivers from “holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device.” Hands-free use is still allowed, but the only interaction “used to activate or deactivate a feature or function” of the device allowed is “a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger.”

We all know many drivers don’t abide by the law. These people are putting us all in danger. Police can pull over drivers and ticket them for illegal phone use, but in some cases, the only time a distracted driver puts their phone down is after they’ve caused an accident.

How Does Cell Phone Use Affect a Personal Injury Claim?

If you’re seeking compensation from a distracted driver, cell phone use can be a key piece of evidence when it comes to proving and maximizing your claim. A lawyer can help you access call and text logs and investigate the at-fault driver’s social media history. Timestamps showing they were active on their phone just before they hit you are hard to refute if your case ends up in front of a jury.

Further, because your case won’t be heard in criminal court, California’s cell phone use statutes don’t dictate what actions you can point to as proof of negligence. While illegal activities like texting may further cement your case, researchers have found talking on the phone can affect a driver’s concentration and ability to react as well. Therefore, while the state can’t ticket a driver who is talking using hands-free technology, you can use that behavior to support your case for compensation.

You should note that cell phone use on your part could also affect your claim. An insurance adjuster, looking for proof of shared fault, may look into your phone records as well. With California’s pure comparative negligence rules, negligent behavior won’t stop you from receiving compensation altogether—but it could reduce the amount you receive.

Arguing for Punitive Damages in Texting and Driving Cases

When you can prove a driver was acting with “reckless disregard” for others, you can request punitive damages—additional compensation awarded to the victim as a punishment to the at-fault party. Though no court case in California has addressed the issue of whether texting or other types of phone use constitute “reckless disregard,” we expect the question will be posed within the next few years.

Why? Because it’s no secret using your phone while driving is a distraction. Anyone who watches the news or has a social media profile knows this. The more researchers look at the effects of phone use on driving, the more we learn about how hazardous it is. In fact, one study suggests even taking a phone call using hands-free technology can dull a driver’s reaction time as much as driving under the influence does.

Victims of drunk drivers are likely to be awarded punitive damages because everyone is taught not to drink and drive. Someone who makes the choice to drive while intoxicated is knowingly putting themselves and others in danger. Likewise, as information regarding cell phone use while driving spreads among our populace, drivers who choose to use their devices will be making the same dangerous choice. That opens them up to claims for punitive damages, a measure that will hopefully help victims and further deter phone use among drivers at the same time.

Other Types of Driver Distraction

Cell phones may get the most publicity when it comes to distracted driving, but they are far from the only hazard. California defines distracted driving as “anything that takes your eyes or mind off the road or hands off the steering wheel.”

This definition might seem overly broad to many, especially because it means you’ve probably driven distracted more than once. However, analysis of accident records shows 80% of collisions involve distraction of some type. It’s not just cell phones that can cause harm—so can other activities like:

  • Eating or drinking
  • Interacting with a GPS device or screen built into your car
  • Trying to control kids or pets in the backseat
  • Talking to someone else, especially about a serious or demanding matter
  • Personal grooming (adjusting hair, makeup, etc.)

While novice drivers are most at risk from distractions, these behaviors can impair even the most experienced drivers. Focusing on anything other than the road results in inattention blindness. Distracted drivers may fail to see up to 50% of their environment, even if they are looking at the road ahead. This is why any type of distraction provides strong proof for a claimant in an auto accident case.

Just Drive

For distracted driving awareness month, the National Safety Council (NSC) is asking all of us to “just drive.” When you pledge to put safety first, you will receive a certificate and additional information about road safety efforts across the country. Now that you know how dangerous driver distraction can be, it’s easy to see why this initiative is so important for road safety.

For the victims of distracted driving accidents, we want to make sure you receive the help you need. Our attorneys can take on everything from investigating your accident to speaking with insurance adjusters to handling paperwork if you were seriously injured. Reach out to us to start your claim.

Our team has recovered over $1 billion for victims of negligence in and around Sacramento. Call us today at (916) 520-6639 to see how we can help you.

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