Punitive damages are meant to punish bad conduct. Careless driving is not enough. Instead, in the State of Florida, to warrant punitive damages the driving conduct must be wanton or reckless. That means the person was so neglectful that they knew the conduct was very likely to cause harm but they consciously chose to engage in the conduct anyway. In 1976, Florida courts ruled that since driving drunk is a voluntary act that shows a reckless attitude, punitive damages can potentially be awarded.
As a result, in an attempt to discourage drunk drivers, judges allow victims of alcohol related car accidents who file lawsuits to seek punitive damages. This allows juries to award the grieving more money and is meant as a kind of scare tactic against drunk driving.
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Naples News reports that studies show texting while driving increases the risk of a car accident 23 times. A Naples car accident lawyer recently used this statistic to convince a judge in North Naples, Florida to allow a widow to seek punitive damages for the death of her husband. The alleged wrongdoer, Lawrence Daniels, was allegedly texting a coworker when he hit the woman’s bicycle-riding husband, James Casey. This appears to be the first time a Florida court has allowed a jury to consider punitive damages related to texting while driving.
Defense attorney Myron Shapiro argues there is no proof that Daniels was using his cell phone while driving and that Caskey’s low-profile bicycle may have caused the accident. But an eye witness estimated Daniels called 911 within 20-25 seconds of the collision, prompting the subpoena of his phone records. The sheriff’s records show the phone call about the car accident came in at 9:04:38. Daniels’ phone records show he checked his voicemail at 9:03, sent a text message between 9:03:01 and 9:03:59 and received a text message around 9:04:01. These records coupled with the witnesses account strongly imply the driver was in fact texting while driving.
If this case goes to trial, a jury will first have to decide if Mr. Daniels was in fact texting while driving. If they conclude he was, the jury will then have to decide whether texting while driving, like drinking while driving, is so reckless that Mr. Daniels should be punished with punitive damages.