No Bull, Just Results

Attorney Sanga Turnbull

Florida Court Rules That Punitive Damages Are Available to a Victim of Distracted Driving Car Accidents

On Behalf of | Jul 2, 2020 | Distracted Driving Accident

Florida specifically prohibits texting and driving. Under the state’s distracted driving law, texting while operating a motor vehicle is a primary offense, which allows police officers to pull over a driver solely for holding their phone while operating a car.

If you or someone you love was hit by a driver who was texting while behind the wheel, you may be able to pursue compensation, including medical expenses, pain and suffering, and the loss of income. Those types of damages are referred to as “compensatory damages.”

But there is also another category of damages: punitive damages, which are awarded if your case meets specific criteria. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter them from similar conduct in the future. Compensatory damages, on the other hand, aim to compensate the victim for their losses.

However, punitive damages are almost never available to victims of car accidents, as they are only awarded if the defendant’s actions amounted to intentional misconduct or gross negligence. However, a recent case demonstrates that punitive damages may be available to victims of auto accidents involving distracted driving.

Punitive Damages in a Distracted Driving Auto Accident

Earlier this year, in Sapp v. Olivares, the Florida Fourth DCA ruled that a driver’s use of a cell phone while driving could serve as the basis for a claim for punitive damages following an auto accident.

In the case, a trial judge allowed the victim to amend their complaint to include a claim for punitive damages against Publix, a trucking company, and its truck driver who used a hands-free cell phone during a collision. The crash happened after the trucker ran a red light, killing a person.

After the trial judge’s decision, the defendants tried to disqualify the judge for being biased. The plaintiff’s attorney presented the following evidence to obtain punitive damages:

  • Evidence showing that the truck driver was on his cell phone;
  • Records demonstrating that the driver’s employer specifically trains its drivers on maintaining a safe speed, observing their surroundings, looking ahead at traffic, paying attention at intersections, and prohibits distracted driving, but argued that the training and the company’s cell phone policy were not consistent.
  • Proof that Publix allows hands-free cell phone use, which can be just as distracted as handheld cell phone use.
  • A copy of the Florida Commercial Driver’s License Handbook, which prohibits any distractions and specifically states that hands-free cell phones can be just as distracting as handheld phones.
  • The trucker’s cell phone records showing that he had been on his phone most of the day when the truck accident occurred (also, the driver admitted to regularly talking on his phone while driving).

Florida Fourth DCA ruled that the trial judge’s decision did not warrant disqualification and concluded that the truck driver’s use of a cell phone supported a claim for punitive damages.

When Are Punitive Damages Available in Florida?

A car accident victim is required to collect sufficient evidence of the other party’s wrongdoing in order to seek the award of punitive damages. You may have to hire a personal injury attorney to submit a subpoena to get access to the distracted driver’s cell phone records.

However, Florida law imposes a limit on punitive damages. Typically, the cap is three times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater. Speak with a knowledgeable Lakeland distracted driving accident attorney to determine whether punitive damages are available in your particular case. Schedule a consultation with our lawyers at The Turnbull Firm by calling at 863-324-3500.