Last week, our blog discussed unlawful searches of cell phones by law enforcement. This week we will be discussing cell phones but in the context of a personal injury case. How will evidence of cell phone use affect an injury accident matter?
Cell phones are widely used. Nowadays, it is difficult to find someone who does not own a cell phone that can text or search the internet. One report concluded that there are now more cell phones in the United States than people. Moreover, the National Safety Council has reported that 26% of all collisions involve a party using a cell phone while driving. Given these facts, personal injury attorneys should be prepared to investigate whether the at-fault party was using an electronic device, which helped cause the collision.
Cell phone cases are similar to DUI cases. Let me give some examples. One, it is unlawful in California to drive and use a cell phone (or manipulate a device with one's hands while driving), like it is unlawful to drive while under the influence of alcohol. Two, California has taken steps to notify the public of the dangers of driving while using a cell phone, just like with DUIs. Commercials are on all of the time -- some of them involve the victim speaking about how a cell phone has harmed them significantly. Three, a separate criminal case (DUI), or infraction case (cell phones), could help prove liability with respect to the negligent driver. In a lot of DUI cases, the district attorney makes the defendant admit liability for purposes of restitution.
Besides liability, cell phone use could potentially lead to punitive damages. Courts have held punitive damages are appropriate in some cell phone cases.
The argument to request punitive damages in a cell phone case relies upon the wisdom of the seminal case that involved a DUI driver: Tayor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal.3d 890. In that case, the California Supreme Court found that certain conduct could give rise to a request for punitive damages. The opinion did not limit "malicious conduct" to DUIs. It stated, in part, that: "the circumstances in a [non-DUI case could involve] similar willful or wanton behavior..."
Injured parties should not only investigate cell phone use for purposes of liability, they should also consider whether it could impact the damage element of their case. Not all cases of cell phone use will merit punitive damages, however. "Malice" is difficult to prove. Nevertheless, plaintiffs should be generally aware of how cell phone use could potentially impact their own case.