Distracted driving is becoming one of the number one causes of car accidents. In some cases, it can be just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. And with phone addiction at all time highs, injury lawyers have to be able to investigate whether the other driver was on their phone. It can have huge implications for your lawsuit and for how much money you recover, because a driver on their phone can be negligent by paying attention to it instead of the road.

But what about punitive damages? Can juries in Georgia punish drivers for texting instead of driving? We’ll explain more in this article.

And if you’re looking for a lawyer to help with any kind of injury, including a car accident, Kneupper & Covey may be able to help. We have offices in Georgia, and founding partner Cyclone Covey is licensed there and lives in Atlanta. If you’re not in Georgia, we may still be able to help. We have lawyers licensed in a number of states working for our firm, and we have partnerships with attorneys around the country who often work together with us on lawsuits. Click below to submit your claim.

Do you get punitive damages if the other driver was on their phone during an accident?

In McKnight v. Love, 369 Ga. App. 812, 894 S.E.2d 110 (2023), a Georgia Court of Appeals decided this issue. And while it’s not the final word, it wasn’t a great decision for drivers.

The court was reviewing a case out of DeKalb County where a driver was on his phone for 30 minutes straight when he slammed into another car from behind. Here’s how the court described the facts:

“[T]he record shows that early in the morning of November 13, 2019, both McKnight and Love were traveling in stop-and-go traffic on I-20 in DeKalb County. McKnight was driving his 2011 Chevrolet Silverado truck, and Love followed closely behind him in a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe. As the two drove along I-20, traffic slowed ahead, and McKnight applied his brakes and stopped his vehicle—but Love forcefully hit McKnight from behind. Just prior to impact, McKnight peered into his rearview mirror and saw that Love would be unable to stop. Although McKnight could not see Love inside of the vehicle (and so he could not tell what Love was doing right before the accident), he believed Love was distracted because he was “coming pretty fast” when other vehicles had already stopped. And there is evidence that in the 20 minutes Love spent driving that morning, he continuously made and received phone calls on his cell phone.”

Seems like an open and shut case, right? The driver on his phone slammed into the victim.

But on the question of punitive damages, the Court of Appeals held that under Georgia law, this wasn’t a win for the plaintiff. Specifically, the court looked at OCGA § 51-12-5.1, a Georgia law allowing for them.

The court said that in “automobile-collision cases, we have routinely held that punitive damages are authorized ‘when the accident results from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as excessive speeding or driving while intoxicated, but not when a driver simply violates a rule of the road.’”

But Love, the distracted driver, didn’t have a pattern of dangerous driving, at least according to the evidence in the case. It wasn’t enough to violate the rules of the road once. To get punitive damages in Georgia in a car accident lawsuit, one way is now to show that the other driver has a history of it.

Another way to grant punitive damages that the court considered was if there are “aggravating circumstances or conscious indifference to the consequences.” But again, the Court said the facts in McKnight v. Love weren’t bad enough. It said that “following too closely in stop-and-go traffic on I-20 while using a cell phone” wasn’t enough.

Does this mean I can never get punitive damages if the other driver was using a cell phone?

No. But it does put some limits on it. A good injury lawyer can come up with some distinctions, however. The other driver in your case might have a worse history than this court was looking at. And background checks might reveal a history of reckless or dangerous driving.

Another distinction is that this was stop-and-go traffic. It’s arguably less dangerous to text or call during stop and go traffic than while speeding, for example, or if there’s some other aggravating factor like intoxication.

And a person’s phone records might reveal they’re regularly texting or on the phone during the time they commute—something that would show a pattern of violations.

The court’s decision also gave a list of some other examples that would support punitive damages—things like driving while you know there’s a serious mechanical problem with the car, or leaving the scene of an accident, or stopping in the middle of the interstate.

It’s also important to know that this is a Georgia state court decision. Other states won’t be bound by it at all. Part of why Georgia has these restrictions is because of past tort reform bills that narrowed when people can get punitive damages. So in another state, you may still be able to win them if another driver’s been texting or chatting on the phone.

Every accident is its own set of facts. And the key to getting punitive damages is getting the best evidence possible of what happened. Texting while driving is a huge cause of accidents, and injury lawsuits (and punitive damages) help discourage people from hurting others with reckless driving). Contact our attorneys if you’ve suffered an injury from someone else’s negligence and Kneupper & Covey may be able to help you recover. Click below to submit your claim.