In recent years, cell phone use while driving has caused record numbers of car accidents across the country, including Delaware. Although it is illegal to use a cell phone when driving in Delaware, drivers on roads and highways throughout Delaware are still using cell phones to talk, text, email, etc.
In tort cases such as car accident cases, Delaware law permits the injured party to make claims against the at-fault party for economic and non-economic losses. In a typical car accident case, the innocent, injured party can make a claim for medical bills and lost wages in excess of PIP, any other out of pocket expenses, and pain and suffering. In addition, in some cases, the evidence may support a claim for punitive damages.
Delaware Law – The Standard for Punitive Damages
What are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are designed to serve two goals: 1. to punish the person who committed the wrongful act, and 2. to deter others in the community from engaging in similar conduct in the future. See Jardel v. Hughes.
Punitive damages claims are only allowed if there is evidence of wanton, willful, or reckless conduct. Specifically, a defendant’s conduct must be outrageous and show a conscious indifference to the rights of others, and in a car accident case, the rights of other drivers and passengers on the road.
The plaintiff (injured driver/passenger) must show that the defendant acted with a reckless state of mind and must have foreseen or should have foreseen the risk of harm. Mere inadvertence, mistake, or errors of judgment are insufficient to sustain a claim for punitive damages.
If the evidence supports a reasonable inference that the defendant’s conduct meets the standard for recovering punitive damages, the question of punitive damages is typically reserved for the trier of fact, i.e., the judge in a court/bench trial or the jury in a jury trial.
Is Cell Phone Use Sufficient to Support a Claim for Punitive Damages?
In and of itself, using a cell phone when driving is probably insufficient to support a claim for punitive damages. See Howell v. Kusters, a 2010 Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle County (Wilmington) case. The case involved an intersection accident which occurred just outside of Wilmington, in New Castle County. The accident occurred at the intersection of Route 2, Kirkwood Highway, and Route 7, Limestone Road.
During the course of litigation, the evidence showed that the at-fault driver was talking on her cell phone and speeding 20 miles over the posted speed limit as she approached a traffic light that was already red. Further, the driver blew through the red light without ever applying the brakes.
The trial court allowed the injured party to amend her Complaint to add a claim for punitive damages. The at-fault driver appealed to the Delaware Superior Court and lost.
The Howell case is the most recent Delaware court case to discuss punitive damages in the context of a car accident case and basically held that cell phone use coupled with other factors like speeding and running a red light may support a claim for punitive damages.
Martin Knepper, Car Accident Lawyer
Attorney Martin Knepper is a car accident lawyer with over 30 years of experience. Contact Mr. Knepper for a free case review. (302) 658-1717
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