Punitive Damages for Texting While Driving in Maryland?
Category : Distracted Driving
The law of Maryland allows for two categories of damages: compensatory damages to replace what has been lost by giving the plaintiff a monetary award for injuries and damage suffered (such as medical expenses, loss of wages, property damage, pain and suffering) and punitive damages. Punitive damages are exemplary damages intended to punish the wrongdoer for outrageous behavior and to deter such behavior by that wrongdoer or other potential wrongdoers in the future.
Maryland Courts have been very conservative in addressing punitive damages and since 1992 the Maryland Court of Appeals has restricted the award of punitive damages to cases of what they call “actual malice” (Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia), which has been interpreted to mean “conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, evil or wrongful motive, intent to injure, ill will or fraud.” The result has essentially been to remove punitive damages as an option for people injured in automobile accidents, even in the most outrageous cases of extreme recklessness or drunkenness on the part of the at fault driver, the rationale being that there is no “actual malice” involved in such behavior.
In recent years, distracted driving has become a serious problem on our roads, with thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of accidents caused by distracted drivers every year (Distracted Driving). More and more accidents are caused by drivers texting and drivers talking on a cellphone. Distracted driving is so common that the Federal Government has created a dedicated website to educate the public on this growing problem – www.distraction.gov.
Using a cellphone to send text messages while driving is a deliberate act. It involves a driver consciously diverting his/her eyes from the traffic for two or three seconds or even more. Distracted driving is so dangerous that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it to be a serious danger to public health.
This raises the question whether conduct such as texting while driving on an Interstate highway at 65 mph and causing a major accident should be deemed to be so outrageously dangerous as to justify an award of punitive damages in Maryland. Alternatively, has the concept of actual malice raised the bar so high for punitive damages that they are impossible to achieve however egregious the conduct may be? The issue awaits the appropriate case and a plaintiff willing to fight the claim all the way to the Court of Appeals.