Distracted Driving Awareness Series, Part 4 of 4 – Holding Distracted Drivers Accountable

For Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Biesterveld & Crook, LLC has been posting blogs with information about distracted driving and its role in personal injury law.  Last week’s blog, Proving Cell Phone Use Contributed to an Injury Car Wreck explored the various technologies being developed to detect cell phone usage while on the road and what kind of information needs to be obtained from cell phone companies in distracted driving personal injury cases.  This final installment of our four-part series focuses on potential punitive damages for distracted driving and how to hold distracted drivers accountable.

Major Verdict in Distracted Driver Injury Case

In November of last year, a jury in San Antonio, Texas unanimously rendered a verdict in a case involving a collision between an employee of JC Fodale Energy Services, LLC, Mickey Hunt, and a woman named Jenny Hennes.  Hennes was reported to be traveling on a highway in stop-and-go traffic.  Her vehicle was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by Hunt.  As a result of the wreck, Hennes suffered neck, back, and shoulder injuries.

Originally Hunt had claimed that the crash was the result of the constant stop-and-go of the traffic that day.  However, it was later found that Hunt was on his cell phone.  The jury was informed that Hunt had been in a phone conversation two minutes before the collision and had been texting four minutes before the collision.  These details were obtained through Hunt’s cell phone records.

JC Fodale Energy Services, LLC. is a private oilfield services company.  The company had a few different policies regarding cell phone usage at the time, but all of them were found to be conflicting.  Different rules were put in place for executives and non-executives.  Hunt, a corporate executive, was reportedly allowed by the company to use his cell phone while driving because of his status within the company.

The jury found that executives, such as Hunt, were aware of studies showing that using cellular devices while behind the wheel is dangerous; to the point of being equal to driving while under the influence.  Considering that the executives failed to share this information with their employees and did not change the company policy accordingly, Hennes received a significant verdict in her favor.

According to prnewswire.com, the jury awarded Ms. Hennes $7.25 million for pain and suffering, $1.1 million for past a future loss of earning capacity, $300,000 for disfigurement, $2.9 million for physical impairment, $1.3 million for medical expenses, and $32.5 million for punitive damages.

Following the verdict, prnewswire.com reported one of Ms. Hennes’ attorneys saying, “The jurors in San Antonio are concerned about safety on our roads and highways. They wanted to make sure their message was heard loud and clear— they will not tolerate an individual or company that allows their drivers to speed, use hands-free cell phones, or text while driving.”

Punitive Damages Give Jurors the Power to Punish Dangerous Behavior

In Kansas, punitive damages are awarded to punish a wrongdoer for willful and wanton invasion of another’s rights, with the ultimate purpose being to restrain or deter others from the commission of similar wrongs. Adamson v. Bicknell, 295 Kan. 879, 888 (2012). A party seeking punitive damages must ask special permission from the Court pursuant to K.S.A. 60-3703.

The laws for punitive damages in Missouri are similar to those in Kansas. Punitive damages are intended to punish outrageous conduct and deter a future occurrence of similar conduct. Lynn v. TNT Logistics North America Inc., 275 S.W.3d 304, 311 (Mo.App.W.D.2008).

According to Newsday, texting and driving is now more dangerous than drinking and driving amongst teens.  This was measured on the basis that in the past few years, more teens are dying or being injured nationwide from texting and driving rather than drinking and driving.

While the numbers of people that text and drive are quite high, the argument can easily be made that even the people who do text and drive know that it is dangerous.  As mentioned in our first blog, awareness campaigns continue to generate traction on eradicating the issue.  AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign alone has already gained over 24.5 million pledges from people who vowed never to text and drive.

Punitive damages are almost routinely allowed in cases involving drunk drivers who cause injury car wrecks. Juries will usually award punitive damages in drunk driving injury cases because everyone understands that driving drunk increases the likelihood of causing a wreck and such conduct should be punished.

We recently reported on the various efforts to bring awareness to the dangers of distracted driving in our blog, Distracted Driving Awareness Series, Part 2 of 4 – Finding Solutions. Considering these efforts and the fact that most people now understand distracted driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving, courts should allow injury victims to pursue claims for punitive damages when distracted driving is a contributing factor in the car wreck because it is conduct we should want to deter.

Our goal at Biesterveld & Crook, LLC is to make our community safer by holding people accountable for dangerous behavior that leads to injuries. To that end, our attorneys use legal procedures, including those discussed in last week’s blog, Distracted Driving Awareness Series, Part 3 of 4 – Proving Cell Phone Use Contributed to an Injury Car Wreck, to investigate whether cell phone use contributes to the vehicle collisions that injure our clients. When our investigations uncover that cell phone use contributes to one of our client’s injuries, we seek punitive damages to allow jurors to punish this behavior as they see fit. In doing so, we hope to advance our goal of making our community safer.


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