In Connecticut, punitive damages for personal injury or property damage related to traffic incidents are classified as "double or treble damages." This means that if a claimant prevails on a punitive count that a judge or jury may choose to double or triple the award. The relevant statute is Section 14-295 of the Connecticut General Statutes. It reads in pertinent part as follows:
14-295 Double or treble damages for personal injury or property damage resulting from certain traffic violations.
In any civil action to recover damages resulting from personal injury, wrongful death or damage to property, the trier of fact may award double or treble damages if the injured party has specifically pleaded that another party has deliberately or with reckless disregard operated a motor vehicle in violation of section 14-218a, 14-219, 14-222, 14-227a, 14-230, 14-234, 14-237, 14-239 or 14-240a, and that such violation was a factor in causing such injury, death or damage to property.
Some of the underlying referenced statutes that must be pleaded in order to bring a 14-295 recklessness claim are excessive speeding (14-218a and 14-219) and driving under the influence (14-227a). What this means is that if one drives unreasonably fast or while intoxicated, they can be held liable for reckless driving, in addition to negligent driving (which can be equally devastating to the injured person). Connecticut explains recklessness in its Jury Instructions as follows:
Connecticut Civil Jury Instructions
3.4-2 Damages - Double or Treble
It should be noted that that if double or treble damages are awarded that the insurance carrier responsible for paying the award is not necessarily required to pay anything above the award for negligence. For example: if a jury finds for a plaintiff that a defendant is negligent and the cause of the plaintiff's injuries and awards the plaintiff $100,000, then $100,000 is all that the liability insurance carrier is required to pay. If that same jury found the defendant reckless and Section 14-295 applied, and doubled the $100,000 award to $200,000, the individual defendant is personally responsible for the additional $100,000. In reality, some insurance companies that choose not to settle a case and expose its client to personal financial consequences, pay the punitive award in order to avoid a bad faith claim. However, some insurance companies refuse to pay the overage and leave its customer on the hook.
Legal wrangling over what entity may be responsible for paying damages should not effect how we decide what is right and wrong under the law. We certainly should not ignore something that as a matter of public policy would be good for the community in that it may deter people from engaging in the very dangerous behavior of using handheld devices while operating a motor vehicle. It should be noted that in Connecticut, it is already a violation of traffic law to use a handheld device while driving. See Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 14-296aa.
The question for you is this: Do you agree that texting and driving or any similar such use of a handheld device which causes distraction, should have a punitive aspect?
Read more about the dangers of texting while driving here: http://www.fcc.gov/guides/texting-while-driving