Use of GPS Device Could Trigger Punitive Damages

A Pennsylvania county trial judge has acknowledged that a driver who gets in an accident while using a GPS device may be found liable for reckless indifference and obliged to pay punitive damages, but only if the injured plaintiff can prove that the driver had completely diverted his or her attention away from the road at a critical time.

In the case before the judge, a driver of a van owned by the driver’s employer stopped at an intersection in order to make a lefthand turn. While waiting for traffic to clear, the van driver looked at a global positioning system (GPS) device. As a motorcyclist entered the intersection, traveling toward the van, the van driver accelerated into his planned left turn. The motorcycle struck the van, and the motorcyclist was injured.

The motorcyclist claimed that the van driver had been “fidgeting” with his GPS device for a substantial time and had had his eyes off the road for a substantial time. The Van driver disagreed, claiming that he had used a GPS application on his cellphone to find his destination and had placed the phone in the lower center console of his van, with the screen angled toward him as he drove. The van driver admitted glancing down at the cellphone as he waited to make the turn but denied having his eyes off the road when he made the turn.

The injured motorcyclist countered that the van driver’s employer prohibited its employee drivers from using GPS devices and that the employer had failed to monitor its employees and to educate them about the dangers of using GPS devices while driving.

The judge recognized that the case presented a “novel issue of apparent first impression.” Recognizing that a driver who is looking at a GPS device at the time of an accident could be found liable for reckless indifference and punitive damages if the driver “completely diverts attention’ from the roadway to “observe a low-positioned GPS,” the judge focused on the facts of the case. Noting that the motorcyclist did not claim that the van driver was still looking at the GPS when he made the left turn, the judge dismissed punitive damages from the case.

The judge observed that punitive damages claims against motorist shave traditionally been allowed in Pennsylvania cases only where a driver unreasonably ignored known or obvious risks in a manner that posed a high risk of harming others. For example, Pennsylvania courts have allowed punitive damages claims in cases involving actions such as drunken driving, operating a truck with an improperly secured load caused by a broken loading rack, and ignoring a stop sign in a construction zone.

The consequences for using electronic devices are only just emerging in the law, as their use is relatively recent. Pennsylvania has no statewide motor vehicle laws banning or restricting cellphone or GPS use while driving. In fact, across the United States no state bans all cellphone use while driving, although 37 states ban all cell phone use by young drivers, and 12 states prohibit using handheld cell phones and electronic devices while driving. Forty-one states, including Pennsylvania, ban texting while driving. In the case involving the van and the motorcycle, the judge pointed out that because texting while driving poses a much higher likelihood of driver distraction, it clearly poses a greater risk to pedestrians and other motorists than does a driver’s merely talking on a cell phone or using a GPS device.

No Pennsylvania appellate court has yet ruled on whether punitive damages claims can be brought against a driver for using an interactive wireless device at the time of an accident. Throughout Pennsylvania, at the trial court level, judges have generally found that the use of an electronic device while driving does not necessarily constitute negligence but depends on the facts of the case. In light of the recent statewide ban on texting, however, now it is always negligent to text while driving.

It is important that drivers recognize that the position of the GPS device, the extent of the driver’s distraction, and the distance traveled by the vehicle during that period of diversion will be critical factors in a court’s or jury’s decision as to whether a driver engaged in outrageous conduct and is thus liable for punitive damages. Positioning your GPS device on the dashboard or windshield will support your claim that you were attentive to the road while using your GPS device.

A driver who momentarily glances at a GPS device affixed to his or her windshield while maintaining a peripheral view of the road likely would not be liable for reckless indifference or wanton conduct, but a driver who completely looks away from the road to consult a GPS device located in his or her lap or somewhere other than the dashboard or windshield is at risk for a punitive damages award.

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