Archive for April, 2012

Pennsylvania Adds Safe Passing Law

By: Catherine C. Nguyen, Esq.

Many people use their bikes as a main form of transportation to get to work, to school, or as a form of exercise. Some pedal to save the environment. Some do it in response to rising gas prices. Others do it to stave off obesity. Whatever their reasons for pedaling, Pennsylvania law grants bicycles full use of the road as though they were another motor vehicle under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3501 et. seq. Many bicyclists take full advantage of this allowance and have been spotted on various roads decked out in reflective gear and waving their arms around to signal impending turns. As often as we see these bicyclists, we also see cars zipping past them on one lane roads at high rates of speed and coming so close that both operators could probably reach out and touch each other. Motor vehicle operators are taught to look out for other motor vehicles and pedestrians at crosswalks, but many are not aware of what is proper etiquette for sharing the road with bicyclists.

In those instances of careless passing or inattention, a bicyclist could become seriously injured and often with little consequence to the motor vehicle operator. For instance, take the very recent case of Frank Pavlick, a bicyclist who was pedaling on the Fahy Bridge in Bethlehem, PA. Mr. Pavlick was struck from behind by a motor vehicle which then attempted to flee the scene. If not for the quick thinking of two Good Samaritans, the motor vehicle operator would have gotten away completely with little property damage and zero bodily injury. Fortunately, Mr. Pavlick did not sustain serious injuries, but the same cannot be said of another bicyclist who was hit on that same bridge four months earlier. Patrick Ytsma, who was hit in December 2011, died from massive head trauma after being struck from behind by a woman driving a car. Serious injuries aren’t just the result of direct collisions. A bicyclist clipped by a car’s mirror can sustain a broken elbow or a fractured leg from impacting the ground. A motor vehicle operator might not even be aware that he brushed a bicyclist. Bicyclists all over the country have been lobbying ceaselessly for stricter laws that would make inattentive drivers keep their eyes on the road and looking out for them.

This is not to say that motorists don’t have their complaints against bicyclists. They ask why a bicyclist needs to ride in the middle of the road and slow down traffic. Sometimes, it’s just not feasible to pass a bicyclist because there are parked cars, traffic, or fire hydrants in the way, and the motorist is forced to idle behind the bicyclist until the road ends or it’s safe to pass. They also ask why the law should give bicyclists more rights when bicyclists barely follow the law themselves. They point to instances where bicyclists have run red lights and stop signs, have cut off cars, and have woven in and out of pedestrian crowds, seemingly without a care and without accountability. There are plenty of aggrieved motorists who perceive bicyclists as nothing more than lawless road-hogging fiends who simply keep demanding more road rights without yielding any consideration themselves.

Pennsylvania recently enacted a new law for the safety of bicyclists. The “Safe Passing Law” requires motorists to keep a four feet safety cushion around them and the bicycles. It also prohibits “right hooks” and “left hooks,” terms used to describe the passing of a bicyclist in order to make an immediate turn. Most importantly, motor vehicles are now permitted to cross the center yellow line in order to pass a bicyclist if it is safe to do so. Violation of this law is a summary offense that carries a $25 fine and court costs.

Motorists and bicyclists have a long way to go before they can comfortably share the road with each other. The Safe Passing Law is a step in the right direction to make Pennsylvania a more bicycle friendly state. Prior to this law, Pennsylvania was severely lacking in laws that protected bicyclists, resulting in its rank as the 8th worst state for bicycle friendliness in 2010. Perhaps we will be seeing more strides toward bicycle-friendliness in the future.

Teen Auto Accident Fatalities Raise Questions about State Laws

Last year, many grieved the loss of five Pennsylvania high school students who died in a multi-car crash. All five teens were traveling in one vehicle when it swerved into on-coming traffic on Route 94 and collided with a pick-up truck in New Oxford, Adams County, PA. None of the teenagers were wearing a seatbelt. This accident and many others, serve as a sad reminder that fatal car crashes involving teenagers are far too common. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Safety Council, a leader in promoting Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) to reduce the number of crashes among teens, feels that it is important to regulate risky driving behavior and encourage the development of safe driving skills.  In an aim to reduce the number of teen auto accidents, the NSC urges all states to adopt seven rules for teenage drivers:

– minimum age 16 for a learner’s permit

– six months before unsupervised driving

– minimum 30 hours supervised driving during learner’s stage

– intermediate licensing at 16½ minimum

– intermediate night driving restriction beginning no later than 10 p.m.

– no more than one non-family passenger for intermediate drivers

– minimum age 17 for a full license.

If all states adopted these suggested rules, an estimated 2,000 lives could be saved each year nationwide. According to the National Safety Council, states with stronger, comprehensive Graduated Driver Licensing systems see a higher reduction in teen crashes.

In an effort to enhance safety on Pennsylvania roads, Governor Corbett and the Legislature recently agreed on changes to the Vehicle Code involving Graduated Driver Licensing requirements, passenger restrictions for junior drivers and passenger restraint laws. The new rules took effect on Dec. 27, 2011. The changes to the law were initiated to help junior drivers receive more comprehensive training, ease young driver distractions through limiting the number of passengers they may carry and to improve general highway safety.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an car accident, contact Metzger Wickersham. One of our Harrisburg auto accident attorneys can answer your questions and take every step to ensure that your rights are protected

Does Texting while Driving Equal Punitive Damages?

By: Catherine C. Nguyen, Esq.

With the passing of Pennsylvania’s texting while driving ban, we see an instance of the law starting to catch up with technology.  Text messaging was first introduced to the world in the early 90s and has exploded in popularity over the past twenty years.  It provides a convenient and instantaneous method of getting in touch with family, friends, and coworkers.  Entire conversations can be had, saved, and referenced at whim.  For many people, it has become the predominant form of communication, preferred over a phone call or an e-mail.  It has become so popular that magazines are publishing articles on texting etiquette while corporations such as Apple and Microsoft churn out newer and greater machines of mass texting every year.

Yet, like anything else, texting has its dangers, too.  Who can forget the video of the woman who flipped into a mall’s fountain while her eyes were glued to her cell phone screen?  How many times have we heard stories of both friends and strangers walking into trees, poles, and other very large, visible, and nonmoving inanimate objects just because texting made them unaware of their surroundings?  Take these people and their phones and put them behind the wheel of a car, bus, or tractor trailer.  It’s almost enough to send shivers down your spine.

Society has begun to respond.  The courts have been seeing instances of victims that were seriously injured by another texting motorist.  Cell phone providers such as AT&T have released ten minute ads that warn about the dangers of texting while driving.  In Pennsylvania, AAA sponsors billboards with a simple message that all texters would understand: “dnt txt n drv.”  Pictures of car wrecks caused by texting drivers have been circulating the internet.  Various studies claim that texting while driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.  Some state that it is even more dangerous than drunk driving.  Courts have allowed for punitive damages in drunk driving cases for years.  So does that mean that punitive damages against texting drivers will logically follow?

Not quite.  In January 2012, a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge dismissed punitive damages against a driver who was speaking on his cell phone at the time he left his lane of travel and struck the Plaintiff’s vehicle.  Xander v. Kiss, 2012 WL 168326 (Pa.Com.Pl.)(Trial Order).  Punitive damages are meant for conduct that is egregious, reckless, and wanton.  To the courts, using a cell phone while driving by itself does not give rise to the level of egregiousness required for punitive damages.

Even more recently, United States District Magistrate Judge Lynne Sitarski threw out a punitive damages claim against a man who was using his cell phone before he rear-ended another vehicle.  In Piester v. Hickey, 2011-CV-04720, Judge Sitarski concluded that solely because the defendant looked at his phone before he allegedly caused the accident was insufficient to establish the outrageous behavior required to support an award of punitive damages.  Her finding was based upon the Xander order and supported the general guideline that additional facts, such as the defendant’s speeding or disregarding traffic signals, are needed before a properly pled punitive damages claim is presented.

Most people who text while driving don’t intend to cause an accident, but with so much literature and so many warnings about its dangers, what more is needed before the courts consider the act “egregious” and a “willful disregard” of another driver’s rights?  Pennsylvania courts have begun to explore this issue by setting a standard that merely using a cell phone before an accident is not enough to grant punitive damages against a defendant driver.  Perhaps now that the texting while driving ban is in effect, we will begin to see a change.  If the court is presented with a defendant driver who has multiple citations for texting while driving on his record before he caused an accident, would that be enough for punitive damages?  What if discovery revealed that the defendant driver had sent numerous texts in the minute before the accident occurred?  Would the court accept the testimony of an expert who stated that the number of texts sent made it impossible for the driver to pay attention to the road?

Texting while driving remains a danger for other motorists, and we anticipate increased case law on the matter in the years to come.  We urge all drivers to be smart, put down their phones, and pay attention to the road.  If you have been injured by a texting motorist, contact the attorneys at Metzger Wickersham for advice and a free consultation.

Uninsured Motorists May Recover Economic Losses from a Third-Party Tortfeasor

By: Catherine C. Nguyen, Esq.

The question of whether an uninsured motorist may recover economic damages from a defendant driver has remained a source of confusion among Pennsylvania courts for years.  In a recent decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the Court clarified the rights of those uninsured motorists who are injured through no fault of their own.

In the case of Corbin v. Khosla, 48 EAP 2010 (Pa. Feb. 21, 2012 McCaffery, J), Corbin, an uninsured motorist, sustained injuries when Khosla took a left turn in front of her vehicle.  Ms. Corbin brought suit against Mr. Khosla, seeking economic damages.

This case brought to light the tension within Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL).  On one hand, the MVFRL prohibits an uninsured motorist from recovering first party benefits under 75 Pa.C.S.A §1714.  On the other hand, the MVFRL states that an uninsured motorist is deemed to have chosen the limited tort option under 75 Pa.C.S.A. §1705, thereby allowing them to recover economic damages.  So would an uninsured motorist be able to recover for her medical expenses and wage loss or not?

The Court explained that “a fundamental difference exists between a claim for first party benefits and one for third-party liability damages.”  First party benefits are paid regardless of fault.  Even if a driver is at fault for an accident, the insurance company she contracts with must pay for a certain amount of her medical expenses.  As a penalty for failing to maintain financial responsibility, an uninsured motorist may not receive these benefits.  However, when another driver is at fault for the uninsured motorist’s injuries, the uninsured motorist may recover economic damages from the defendant driver’s insurance company as though the uninsured motorist had limited tort.

The Court concluded that, “Section 1714 of the MVFRL does not preclude an uninsured motorist from recovering tort damages for economic loss from an alleged third-party tortfeasor under the tortfeasor’s liability coverage.”  For more information on an uninsured motorist’s rights, contact the Pennsylvania attorneys at Metzger Wickersham.