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Update on PA Motor Vehicle Laws: Cell Phone Use While Driving

Pennsylvania's Texting While Driving Ban went into effect on Thursday, March 8, 2012. The new law bans texting while driving. The new law prohibits the reading or sending of text messages and emails while driving. However, drivers are still permitted to talk on their handheld phones. This stateside law supersedes local ordinances that may ban the use of handheld phones while driving.

In terms of the banned practices of texting and using email while driving, the law makes such practices a primary offense, meaning a police officer may pull a driver over for engaging in these acts alone.

Under the law, the offending party may be fined $50 but will not incur any points against their license.

In Piester v. Hickey, 2011-CIV-04720, the Plaintiff in a motor vehicle lawsuit sued for punitive damages based upon Plaintiff's claim that the Defendant driver was using a cell phone at the time of the accident. Punitive damages are used to punish a Defendant in limited circumstances where intentional or outrageous conduct causes harm to another. The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant who owned the vehicle failed to properly train the Defendant driver of the vehicle in driver safety, and claimed Defendant owner was responsible for Defendant driver using his cell phone while driving. Plaintiff also alleged that Defendant intentionally looked at and used his cell phone while driving.

The Court dismissed the punitive damages claim, ruling that these facts do not support a claim for punitive damages under the laws of Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, punitive damages are an extreme remedy available only where the Plaintiff can demonstrate that the Defendant has engaged in "outrageous behavior," with an "evil motive" or "reckless indifference to the rights of others." The risk of harm that the Defendant creates by his behavior must be substantially greater than simply negligent conduct. The Court found that Defendant driver's intentional act of looking at and using his cell phone just prior to the accident may establish a claim for negligence, but such behavior did not establish an "evil motive" or "reckless disregard" for the Plaintiff's rights. Therefore, the punitive damages claim was dismissed.

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