U.S. magistrate judge throws out punitive damages claim against man who used cellphone preceding vehicle accident

Jon Campisi Apr. 2, 2012, 1:51pm

A federal judge has agreed to dismiss punitive damages claims against a motorist and a car dealership who were sued over allegations that the man’s use of a cell phone while driving constituted a reckless act and caused injury to the plaintiff.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski, whose ruling was filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania back on March 20, threw out the punitive damages claim against Derek Piester and Semah Zavareh, a husband and wife who had sued John M. Hickey and Potamkin Hyundai following an automobile accident  in 2009.

Piester was rear-ended by Hickey while driving on the U.S. Route 1 southbound exit off of Interstate 476 in Delaware County, Pa.  on Aug. 5, 2009.

Hickey, a car dealer, was driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck at the time, which was owned by Potamkin Hyundai.

Hickey had allegedly been either looking at or using his cellular phone at the time of the accident, according to background information on the case contained within the judge’s ruling.

The plaintiffs alleged that Hickey’s actions were negligent, careless and reckless, and as well as being willful, wanton and reckless.

The complaint also alleged that the dealership failed to train Hickey how to operate a vehicle safely and allowed him to use his cell phone while driving, which is still legal in Pennsylvania. (Only texting while driving is against the law).

Hickey admitted to having collided with the plaintiffs, but maintained that his actions weren’t deliberately reckless.

In February, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim.

In agreeing to dismiss the motion, Sitarsky wrote that punitive damages in this case, which are an “extreme remedy” under Pennsylvania law, were not warranted because it could not be established that the defendant acted in a particularly outrageous fashion.

“The only fact which Plaintiffs allege in their Complaint regarding Defendants’ conduct is that Hickey ‘looked at’ or ‘used’ his cellular telephone immediately preceding the accident,” the ruling states. “Even accepting this fact as true, this will not support a punitive damages claim under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania courts have held that fact does not give rise to conduct outrageous enough to warrant awarding punitive damages.”

Sitarski said while there is very little case law to reference in analyzing a claims such as this, the case of Xander v. Kiss could be looked at for guidance.

In that case, a Pennsylvania trial court had to consider an almost identical claim involving a motorist being sued for punitive damages because of an accident that allegedly arose out of cellphone use on the part of the defendant.

The court in that case struck down the punitive damages claim, noting that the defendant “simply lost control of his vehicle while speaking on his cellular telephone, causing a motor vehicle accident,” according to Sitarski’s memorandum.

“The court noted that while such allegations may establish a claim for negligence, ‘they fall short of establishing [a defendant’s] evil motive or reckless indifference to [the plaintiff’s] rights,” the ruling states. “Bald allegations that the defendant ‘looked at’ or ‘used’ a cellular telephone while driving are insufficient to support a claim of ‘reckless indifference.’”

The trial court had concluded that other factors would need to be in place in order for a punitive damages claim to proceed, such as whether the defendant was speeding, disregarding traffic signals or was otherwise driving erratically, Sitarski wrote.

“Plaintiffs have pled no facts sufficient to establish ‘outrageous behavior’ on Hickey’s part, and Plaintiffs have similarly failed to set forth facts as to Potamkin’s ‘outrageous behavior’ sufficient to support the award of punitive damages against Potamkin,” Sitarski wrote in her eight-page ruling.


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