Distracted Drivers on Cell Phones in Illinois Could Become Liable for Punitive Damages

Illinois motorists may not fully know the dangers of distracted driving. 71% of teenagers and young adults admit to writing or sending text messages while driving, and 78% of teenagers and young adults admit to reading a text message while driving. With the advances of cell phone technology and its growing popularity, the use of cell phones while driving has increased exponentially in the last few years, and so has the risk posed by distracted drivers.

In fact, increased cell phone usage in Illinois has made the problem of distracted driving much worse, leading to more motor vehicle accidents. The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that approximately 24 percent of all traffic crashes (about 1.2 million) each year are linked to drivers texting or talking on their cell phones while driving. The NSC also reports that the number of car accidents caused by distracted drivers using cell phones is grossly underreported, so there are actually more car accidents caused by distracted driving than current data shows. Illinois is no exception.

When people are injured in car accidents caused by distracted drivers using cell phones, their injuries are sometimes very serious. With a lawyer’s help, victims can receive compensatory damages to help pay for their medical bills and compensate them for pain and suffering. Oftentimes, however, available damages from liability insurance coverage are insufficient to provide victims of distracted driving the compensatory relief they need to return to their normal lives. Medical expenses resulting from car accidents often exceed the at-fault driver’s policy limits.

In some cases, victims of car accidents caused by cell phone driving may be able to receive additional compensation in the form of punitive damages. In Illinois, punitive damages are meant to deter certain behavior and punish the at-fault driver for willful and wanton conduct, or acting with a “reckless and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm and with a conscious indifference to the rights and safety of others.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1115.05.

Illinois courts have granted punitive damages in car accident cases involving drunk driving when the victim (plaintiff) proved the defendant acted willfully and wantonly by driving while intoxicated. See e.g., Ford v. Herman, 316 Ill. App. 3d 726 (5th Dist. 2000) (upholding a jury verdict granting six million dollars in punitive damages). Research comparing cell phone driving and drunk driving shows that although cell phone drivers and drunk drivers react differently to certain traffic situations, “the impairments associated with cell phone drivers may be as great as those commonly observed with intoxicated drivers.” A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver, HUMAN FACTORS, Vol. 48, No. 2, at 388 (Summer 2006). Whether the actions of a driver rise to the level of showing “reckless and outrageous indifference” to the safety of others will be considered by courts on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the facts in each case.

Many states, including Illinois, have already enacted laws that ban all hand-held cell phone use while driving. In January 2014, Illinois banned hand-held cell phone use while driving. See 625 ILCS 5/12-610.2. The Illinois law provides that a driver may not use a hand-held cellular device to read, compose, or send text messages or even talk on the phone while operating a motor vehicle. A driver may still use a cell phone if it is hands-free, either through a Bluetooth device or using the phone’s speakerphone. In spite of this law, many drivers still carelessly insist upon texting or talking while driving.

Illinois courts considering the rights of an injured person may find punitive damages to be appropriate in distracted driving cases involving cell phone use. Hand-held cell phone driving is illegal in Illinois and the risks posed by distracted driving are similar to those posed by drunk driving. The penalties for distracted driving can be very serious. As a matter of public policy, adding punitive damages to civil liabilities (in addition to potential criminal penalties) may help deter people from using cell phones while driving. It could certainly help injured persons receive additional compensation, above the limits of the at-fault driver’s insurance policy.

Punitive damages are not available in every motor vehicle accident case. Unlike compensatory damages, plaintiffs are not entitled to receive punitive damages, except under extraordinary circumstances. A plaintiff seeking punitive damages must first seek and obtain the approval of the court in order to plead punitive damages in a claim. The legal standard reserves such claims to only those acts showing an utter indifference for the safety of others. Given society’s growing awareness of these risks, evidence of cell phone driving or texting while driving may now be sufficient to prove such indifference.

Punitive damages are limited to extraordinary cases. It is important to have a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer who understands when punitive damages may be appropriate and how to apply for such relief in court. If you or someone you know has been injured in a car accident caused by cell phone driving or texting while driving, contact Kane County car accident lawyers at John J. Malm & Associates immediately.