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On August 25, 2011, Priscilla Johnson, 48, of Clayton County, Georgia veered off Highway 138 and collided into three teenagers killing all three. The third victim was taken off life support at Grady Hospital on August 27. Ms. Johnson was charged in the Magistrate Court of Clayton County with more than 12 separate offenses, including reckless driving, DUI, hit and run and failure to exercise due care while using a cell phone.

Allegedly, Johnson was on the cell phone arguing with her husband when she drove through a red light, left the roadway and crashed into the teenagers. Tests indicated that Johnson also had a high level of antidepressants in her system. The teenagers were walking on the side of the highway at the time of the impact. One teenager died at the scene and two others died later at the hospital.

I assume that the level of narcotics found in her system rose to the level of being under the influence of drugs at the time of the collision as there was no mention of alcohol in the investigation. This DUI charge could lead to punitive damages assessed against her in any subsequent civil damages trial.

Johnson could (and probably will) be liable for the assessment of punitive damages in any civil trial. Georgia law on punitive damages can be found in O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1. The pertinent provisions of O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1(c) and O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1(d)(2) are as follows:

“Punitive damages shall be awarded not as compensation to a Plaintiff, but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a Defendant.”

“If it is found that punitive damages are to be awarded, the trial shall be immediately be recommenced in order to receive such evidence as is relevant to a decision regarding what amount of damages will be sufficient to deter, penalize, or punish the Defendant in light of the circumstances of the case. It shall then be the duty of the trier of fact to set the amount to be awarded according to subsection (e), (f), or (g) of this Code Section as applicable (emphasis added).”

Additionally, under Georgia law, the hit and run charge, a violation of O.C.G.A. 40-6-270, coupled with a failure to render aid to the injured would also make her susceptible to punitive damages. In 2000, the Georgia Appellate Court reaffirmed that a hit and run motorist who failed to help the injured would be liable for punitive damages. Langlois v. Wolford, 246 Ga. App. 209 (2000). In Langlois, the defendant fled the scene of the collision which inferred guilt and an attempt to conceal odor and influence of alcohol. In the Clayton County crash, Johnson allegedly fled the scene of the collision and was later apprehended by the Clayton County police. The Clayton County Court (and jury) will be able to infer from the facts that Johnson’s attempt to flee was an inference of guilt and an attempt to conceal that she was under the influence of drugs at the time of the collision. If you believe that you have been injured as the result of a hit and run driver, then you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer immediately.

In the instant collision, Ms. Johnson had also been cited with failure to exercise due while using a cell phone, a violation of O.C.G.A.40-6-241, 241.1 and 241.2. The pertinent part of O.C.G.A. 40-6-241 states that “[a] driver shall exercise due care in operating a motor vehicle on the highways of this state and shall not engage in any actions which shall distract such driver from the safe operation of such vehicle, provided that, except as prohibited by Code Sections 40-6-241.1 and 40-6-241.2, the proper use of a radio, citizens band radio, mobile telephone, or amateur or ham radio shall not be a violation of this Code section.” The two code sections that deal with the permissible uses of a cell phone are found in O.C.G.A. 40-6-241.1 and O.C.G.A. 40-6-241.2. These sections spell out in detail the acceptable uses of a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. As you can see, the list of acceptable uses is quite limited and your average daily cell phone call to friends, family or work would be considered a violation.

One cell phone incident is listed in my blog post that details a case where a DeKalb County jury awarded my clients punitive damages against a motorist who ignored a stop sign due to improper use of a cell phone. Another blog post concerns the cell phone use of a TV celebrity/NFL player in a DUI incident in DeKalb County, Georgia. The increasing use of cell phones by Georgia motorists is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Consequently, innocent motorists are being injured due to the negligence of others.

The Law Offices of Kevin C. Ford is currently accepting DUI and car collision cases throughout Georgia. If you or a loved one has been injured as the result of the negligence of a drunk or negligent driver, then please contact an experienced car accident attorney for a free consultation.

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