Last week, a Tampa judge allowed a person injured in an auto accident to
seek punitive damages from a driver who may have been texting. Although
other courts in Florida have previously allowed punitive damages for that,
this appears to be the first case in the Tampa Bay area that has allowed
punitive damages on that basis.
Courts in our state have always allowed punitive damages against people
who caused accidents while intoxicated. This is based on a recognition
that driving under the influence is a menace to the public. Driving under
the influence goes beyond “mere negligence” into the realm
of grossly negligent or reckless acts.
The parallels are obvious. Studies on driving performance show texting
and driving is at least as dangerous as driving under the influence. Texting
takes so much of a driver’s attention away from the road that it
results in something just as bad as drunken impairment. Even a person
who believes they can multi-task successfully cannot drive safely while
sending and receiving messages from their phone.
This judge’s decision is also important because the Florida legislature
has been regrettably slow in addressing this problem. Despite clear evidence
about the hazards, Florida lawmakers have never moved texting and driving
up to a primary offense. It is still a relatively minor “secondary
offense” under our traffic laws.
A secondary offense is a stepchild among traffic offenses. Standing alone,
it cannot be a basis for a traffic stop. Instead, an officer can cite
someone for a secondary offense if they are already stopping them for
some other reason. That means an officer could not even pull a driver
over if they simply saw the driver texting. The officer would have to
let the driver go unless and until the driver committed some other specific
offense - such as running a red light or causing an accident.
As in many other cases and situations, the courts are getting ahead of
the legislature on this. Let’s hope other judges follow the Tampa
judge’s lead and allow punitive damages for texting and driving.
That may help persuade people to finally put their phones down and watch
the road. While the legislature should still act in the long run, anything
courts can do to help make our roads safer right now is worth applauding.