Georgia Court Issues Opinion on Distracted Driving and Personal Injury

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As an Atlanta-based car and truck wreck lawyer in Atlanta and Dekalb County, I have represented many people who have been seriously injured by drivers who were distracted, primarily while talking on a cell phone. Until recently, there was little, or no, guidance for Georgia appellate courts on the issue of distracted driving and punitive damages. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently issued an important ruling, which touches upon distracted driving, cell phone use, and personal injuries as a result of another driver’s decision to talk on the phone while driving. The case is Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass Inc., No. A11A1313.

In Clinch County Glass, the Lindseys filed a lawsuit over a collision caused by a driver distracted while driving–specifically, he was talking on a cell phone just before the wreck and his use of a cell phone actually caused the collision. This case is generally thought to be the first Georgia appellate decision on the issue of whether punitive damages in a car wreck case can be based solely upon cellphone use prior to the wreck. While the Court answered “no” in this particular case, the opinion does not seem to stand for the notion that cell phone use/distracted driving can never be the basis for a punitive damages claim in a personal injury action in Georgia. The Court of Appeals said that Georgia law allows “proper use” of a cellphone while driving. However, Georgia generally prohibits text messaging while driving.

In the Clinch County Glass case, the defendant (owner of the company) spent so much time in his work truck that he actually mounted a desk in the vehicle and had a cellphone on the desk. This set-up would, apparently, allow him to talk hands free. The defendant driver admitted to the officer at the scene of the wreck that he was looking at his phone at the time of the collision. Yet, the Court of Appeals said that it would require “a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as excessive speeding or driving while intoxicated, but not … simply violat[ion] of a rule of the road” to have the jury consider a punitive damage claim.

The Court found that “although [the defendant] admitted that he was not paying attention because he was distracted by looking up a number and thus was not exercising due care at the time of the accident, mere negligence, even gross negligence, is not enough to support a claim of punitive damages; there must be clear and convincing evidence of a pattern or policy of dangerous driving. …” I wonder whether this sort of ruling goes far enough to protect Georgia drivers and pedestrians?

Many people talk on their phone while driving. It seems that a safe, hand-free policy would be best and certainly much study would need to be done before anyone could, or should, push for a total ban on talking on the phone while driving. However, the law needs to catch-up with reality inasmuch as even without a “pattern or practice” of dangerous use of a cell phone, there are some instances where distracted driving should be able to serve as the basis for punitive damages in Georgia.

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