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Punitive Damages For Texting While Driving In Iowa

Ed Cox Jan. 13, 2023

Although automobiles and driving have become a necessary part of life, driving is risky business. More than 40,000 Americans died in car wrecks in 2021. Millions of individuals are injured in car wrecks every year. Car wrecks result in several types of damages which tend to fall into two categories: compensatory and punitive damages.

Compensatory Damages For Personal Injuries

The purpose of compensatory damages is to place the injured in the same position they would be in had the injury/car accident not happened. Compensatory damages in Iowa often include non-economic damages such as pain and suffering; loss of enjoyment of life; disfigurement; mental anguish; and loss of consortium for the injured party's spouse/children. Compensatory damages also include economic damages such as medical costs, future medical costs, past lost earnings, and future lost earnings. Compensatory damages also include the cost of the physical damage to the injured party's personal belongings and vehicle. Compensatory damages are the typical damages awarded in lawsuit for personal injury.

Punitive Damages For Texting While Driving

In select instances, Iowa law allows for punitive damages. Punitive damages are strictly to punish a wrongdoer and to deter others from participating in similar conduct in the future. For punitive damages in Iowa, the plaintiff must prove that by a preponderance of clear, convincing, and satisfactory evidence, the conduct of the defendant from which the claim arose constituted willful and wanton disregard for the rights or safety of another. Iowa Code Ann. § 668A.1 (West). Willful and wanton means that “the actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow, and which thus is usually accompanied by a conscious indifference to the consequences.” Fell v. Kewanee Farm Equip. Co., 457 N.W.2d 911, 919 (Iowa 1990). If the plaintiff's conduct was not directed specifically at the plaintiff, then the plaintiff can only receive 25% of the punitive damages and the other portion goes to the state of Iowa.

Iowa law prohibits the use of electronic communication devices while driving. Furthermore, Iowa increased this violation to a primary violation in 2017. Cell phone usage while driving has become a nationwide epidemic. It is estimated that over 3,100 Americans died in 2019 due to distracted driving. Moreover, distracted driving injured 424,000 Americans. Id. Drivers who use hand-held devices while driving are 4 times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves or others.

No Iowa Court has addressed the issue of texting and driving regarding punitive damages. Furthermore, very few other states have addressed the issue of punitive damages for distracted driving. The New Mexico Supreme Court did not permit an award of punitive damages because, even though the at-fault driver was using his cell phone when the collision occurred, there was no further evidence that the at-fault driver was driving erratically or recklessly at the time of the collision. Fuller v. Finley Res., Inc., 176 F. Supp. 3d 1263, 1266 (D.N.M. 2016) (the "New Mexico Case"). Thus, the use of the cell phone alone while driving did not rise to a willful, wanton, malicious, or reckless level.

Georgia Courts held that a driver talking on his or her cell phone at the time of an accident alone is insufficient to support an award of punitive damages primarily because there needs to be evidence showing a pattern [emphasis added] of dangerous driving or other aggravating circumstances for the court to authorize an award of punitive damages. Archer Forestry, LLC v. Dolatowski, 331 Ga. App. 676, 771 S.E.2d 378 (2015); Mastec North America, Inc. v. Wilson, 325 Ga. App. 863, 755 S.E.2d 257 (2014) (collectively, the "Georgia Cases"). Other Courts have allowed the issue of punitive damages with cell phone usage while driving, especially when combined with other factors such as speeding, fatigue, or other reckless behavior. See Hoskins v. King, 676 F.Supp.2d 441, 446, 451 (D.S.C.2009); Howell v. Kusters, 2010 WL 877510 at *2 (Del.Sup.Ct. Mar. 5, 2010).

 Iowa Courts have allowed punitive damages for drunk driving. See Briner v. Hyslop, 337 N.W.2d 858 (Iowa 1983); Sebastian v. Wood, 246 Iowa 94, 66 N.W.2d 841 (Iowa 1954). The Iowa Supreme Court has said that the main purpose of punitive damages is that they are a punishment for the party involved and as a warning and an example to him in the future, and to all others who may offend in like manner. The award of such damages constitutes an effective deterrent to such offenders. However, to be an effective deterrent the damages must be available when needed.

Thousands of Americans die every year due to distracted driving and hundreds of thousands are injured. Punitive damages exist to deter future behavior of the same kind. Distracted driving is not going to stop until driver's face more than a simple misdemeanor or small fine. Thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars in punitive damages is far more prohibitive than a simple misdemeanor charge for the average American.

Although other states have not awarded punitive damages for cell phone usage while driving, it is important to note some distinctions. The New Mexico Case did not clarify what the driver was doing with his phone. In the Georgia Cases, the defendants were TALKING on their cell phones which allowed them to keep their eyes on the road. Furthermore, cases from other states show that punitive damages for cell phone usage while driving are possible, especially when the cell phone usage is paired with speeding or other factors. Distracted driving is essentially as dangerous as drunk driving, and the state of Iowa has allowed punitive damages in numerous drunk driving cases. In both instances, anyone with common sense knows that the underlying act is illegal and wrong when they are committing it. In both cases, every reasonable American knows that by partaking in the act they are drastically increasing their chances of causing an accident.

If you have been injured due to a driver who was texting and driving, contact our firm today. You are likely entitled to multiple forms of compensation and your case could also set the precedent in Iowa for receiving punitive damages due to the reckless conduct of distracted drivers. We have offices in Centerville and Bloomfield with attorneys serving all of southern Iowa and northern Missouri ready to fight for you.