GPS use During a Collison Could be Civilly Punishable

According to a recent trial court opinion authored by the Honorable Terrence R. Nealson of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, the driver of a motor vehicle who causes an accident and is also using a GPS device may be subject to additional damages called punitive damages. There are two general categories of damages: compensatory damages, designed to compensate a person for their injuries and economic losses, and punitive damages, designed to punish the offender.

In a typical personal injury action a person who has been injured through no fault of their own is only entitled to compensatory damages. Compensatory damages typically include the cost of medical treatment, the cost of future medical treatment, out-of-pocket expenses (such as co-payments), lost wages, loss of earning capacity, property damage, pain and suffering damages as well as damages for emotional distress. The purpose of compensatory damages is to make the injured person as "whole" as possible by attempting through money to make a person's life as similar as possible pre-accident. Punitive damages, however, shifts the focus from the injured person to the bad acts of the driver who caused the collision. While punitive damages have been allowed in certain circumstances, such as when the driver was drunk or when the driver ignored traffic signals in a construction zone, the majority of personal injury automobile accidents do not include punitive damage awards.

Although the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas failed to award punitive damages in Rockwell v. Knott, Judge Nealson's Opinion on the matter contemplates instances where punitive damages may be appropriate when the at-fault driver is utilizing GPS. In Rockwell v. Knott, Glenn Knott was operating a work van owned by his employer New Prime. According to Mr. Knott, New Prime had instructed him to transport an employee to the bus station. Mr. Knott, being unfamiliar with the route to the bus station utilized the GPS function on his cell phone. The cell phone was placed in the center console and tilted upward. Making a left onto the southbound lane of North Washington Street, Mr. Knott and the driver of a motorcycle, Steven Rockwell, collided. In his Complaint against Mr. Knott and New Prime, Stephen Rockwell asked for punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages claiming that Mr. Knoll's use of the cell phone GPS device was an obvious danger that Mr. Knoll ignored. Mr. Knoll admitted to using the GPS device while driving but indicated that at the time he made the left hand turn he was no longer looking directly at the device.

While the trial agreed that there was not sufficient evidence to award punitive damages, in his opinion Judge Nealson indicated that: "A motorist arguably may engage in reckless indifferent conduct and thereby be potentially liable for punitive damages, if [s]he completely diverts his or her attention from the roadway to observe a low-positioned GPS device and nevertheless continues to travel on the roadway until [s]he collides with another vehicle." The trial court indicated that if an injured party could prove that the driver was completely diverting his or her attention away from the road, a court may entertain an award of punitive damages. Judge Nealson indicated that a proper assessment with respect to whether punitive damages should be awarded included: "the position of the GPS devise, the extent of the driver's distraction, and the distance traveled by the vehicle during that period of diversion." Based upon Judge Nealson's directions, it is likely that a GPS device that is secured at eye level, such as one mounted on the dashboard or windshield, will not support an award of punitive damages. If, however, the driver is forced to glance down, diverting their vision from the road and the injured party can prove that the driver's attention was completely diverted, the trial court opined that an award of punitive damages may be appropriate.