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Judge OKs Punitives Claim For Cellphone Use In Crash Case

Posted By Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith, P.C.

A Philadelphia trial judge has allowed three plaintiffs in a personal injury case to seek punitive damages against a truck driver they claim was talking on his cellphone when he collided with their vehicle.

On June 6, in Simmons v. Lantry, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark I. Bernstein granted the plaintiffs’ unopposed May 2 motion for leave to amend their complaint to include a claim for punitive damages against defendants Stephen Lantry and Van Santis Development Inc.

Counsel for the plaintiffs, Robin Schleifer Weiss of Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith, P.C. in Philadelphia,
said Wednesday that her research turned up little Pennsylvania case law
on the issue of punitive damages where the defendant driver was using
a cellphone at the time of the accident.

Schleifer said the only state court decisions she could find on the topic
were trial court rulings, most of which tossed out claims for punitives
at the summary judgment stage and found that merely talking on a cellphone
at the time of an accident does not warrant punitive damages.

Schleifer said she was, however, able to find a few Pennsylvania federal
court rulings that allowed plaintiffs to seek punitives against defendants
they claimed were distracted by their phones, particularly in cases where
the defendants were professional truck drivers.

“The federal court decisions seemed to be a little harder on truck
drivers,” Schleifer said, explaining that some courts have reasoned
that professional drivers should have a better understanding of the hazards
of distracted driving.

According to court papers, plaintiff December Simmons was driving a car,
in which fellow plaintiffs Regina Cabrera and Dashanne Mathis were passengers,
when it was struck by a tractor-trailer driven by Lantry and owned by
Van Santis.

In their reply to the plaintiffs’ original complaint, Lantry and Van
Santis joined Simmons as an additional defendant, claiming her actions
had caused the crash.

According to court records, however, Simmons’ motion for summary judgment
was granted in May and she was dismissed as a defendant in the case.

The plaintiffs, in their May 2 motion, said recently discovered evidence
suggests the accident occurred because Lantry had been on his cellphone
at the time of the accident and had abruptly made a right-hand turn without
using his turn signal or checking to see if any vehicles were approaching
to his right.

The plaintiffs argued in the motion that they should be allowed to seek
punitives because Lantry’s operation of a tractor-trailer while talking
on a cellphone constituted “negligent, careless and reckless” conduct.

According to the motion, Van Santis said in its answers to interrogatories
that it has a policy prohibiting its drivers from talking on their cellphones
“‘unless the vehicle is stopped.’”

Employees who violate that policy are subject to a written warning on the
first offense, followed by a suspension for a second violation, according
to the motion.

The motion said Lantry, in his deposition testimony, denied that he was
using his cellphone at the time of the accident.

But cellphone records, recently obtained through a subpoena sent to Lantry’s
service provider, show that he received a call and made a call on his
cellphone within the approximate time period that the accident took place,
according to the motion.

Lantry did admit in his testimony that he was aware of the dangers of using
a cellphone while operating a vehicle, according to the motion.

The motion also said Lantry has been a professional truck driver since 1982.

“Given his extensive experience driving trucks, he should have, and
did, know better than to operate a tractor-trailer while using his cellphone,”
the motion said, adding that Lantry testified that, while he is able to
fully see the lanes next to him from the driver’s seat of his tractor-trailer,
he did not see Simmons’ vehicle before the accident occurred.

“If he had been paying proper attention to the roadway and examined
his surroundings prior to beginning his right turn, he would have seen
the vehicle operated by the plaintiff … prior to turning into the lane
in which she was traveling,” the motion said.

According to the motion, Philip Showers, another truck driver who was stopped
at a red light and witnessed the accident, testified that he saw Lantry
with his cellphone up to his ear when the crash occurred.

The motion said Showers also testified that he saw Lantry make an abrupt
right turn without properly checking the right-hand turn lane.

The motion cited a 2013 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Western
District of Pennsylvania in Scott v. Burke allowing the plaintiff to amend
his complaint to add a claim for punitive damages after it was found during
discovery that the defendant tractor-trailer driver had been on his cellphone
immediately prior to the accident.

The motion also cited a 2009 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the
Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Pennington v. King, in which the court
denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’
claim for punitive damages where the defendant tractor-trailer driver
was on his cellphone at the time of the accident.

The court in Pennington said a jury could determine the defendant was distracted
by the phone call and was driving “‘in a wildly erratic manner,’”
a finding that could satisfy the “intentional or willful, wanton
or reckless conduct” standard required to support an award of punitives
in Pennsylvania.

The motion also pointed to several other, non-cellphone-related Pennsylvania
federal court rulings allowing punitive damages claims to proceed against
defendant tractor-trailer drivers accused of potentially reckless behavior
such as speeding in hazardous weather conditions and driving an overloaded
truck with improperly adjusted brakes.

The motion said punitive damages are “clearly warranted” against
Lantry for talking on his cellphone in violation of company policy while
making an abrupt turn in a large tractor-trailer, despite knowing the
risks and dangers of doing so.

The motion further argued that punitives are also proper against Van Santis
on the basis of vicarious liability.

The defense did not file a response to the motion.

Counsel for the defendants, Thomas D. Summerville of Snyder & Barrett
in Philadelphia, said his client plans to file a motion to preclude any
testimony at trial about Lantry’s cellphone use.