Cell Phone Use in Car Leads to $5.2 Million Payout by Employer

Posted on Feb 13, 2008

Talk isn't always cheap, as International Paper Co. learned recently when it agreed to pay $5.2 million to settle a personal injury suit related, at least in part, to one of its employees' use of a cell phone while driving.

According to the complaint, filed in Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court in 2006, International Paper employee Vanessa C. McGrogan was using her company-supplied cell phone as she drove west on Interstate 16 near Dublin, Ga., when she rear-ended a vehicle driven by Debra Ford. The collision pushed Ford's vehicle into the ditch on the right side of the road, overturning it so that the driver's side hit and then slid along the roadway -- with Ford's arm trapped between the door and the asphalt.

Medical complications eventually forced Ford, a widowed mother of four, to have her arm amputated almost up to the shoulder.

"We have a cell phone statute in Georgia that says the driver is not to do things that are distracting," said Ford's attorney, Katherine L. McArthur of The Law Firm of Kathy McArthur in Macon, Ga. McArthur explained that this essentially means reasonable cell phone use is acceptable within the purview of the statute. The International Paper employee's cell phone use was not reasonable, McArthur continued, because the employee had set her cruise control at 77 miles per hour -- in a 70 mph speed zone.

The combination of those two factors, said McArthur, allowed her to raise the issue of intentional negligence on the part of the employee and International Paper and to seek punitive damages.

International Paper raised some affirmative defenses, McArthur said, alleging, among other things, that the loss of her client's arm was caused at least in part by the fact that she was a smoker, and that smoking had damaged her vascular system, thus impairing the healing process. Both Ford's doctor and another medical expert refuted that claim, saying Ford lost her arm because it was crushed in the accident, McArthur said.

Outside counsel for International Paper, C. Michael Evert Jr. and Christopher G. Conley of Evert Weathersby Houff, referred comment to Amy Sawyer, a spokeswoman for International Paper in Memphis, Tenn.

Sawyer, in an e-mail message, said only, "This was an unfortunate accident, which touched off a series of bizarre events that caused Ms. Ford's injuries. Given these circumstances, it was a very unique case."

After a series of negotiations with a variety of outside counsel for International Paper -- the company changed law firms three times, McArthur said -- and an attempt at mediation, the parties agreed to settle for $5.2 million in mid-December. The case had been set for trial March 17.

Although International Paper filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages, the case settled before Judge Michael D. Johnson had ruled on that issue. "They didn't want to make bad law," McArthur said of International Paper.

According to McArthur, the company made an early settlement offer of $750,000, and a mediator indicated International Paper would go as high as $2.5 million. McArthur, however, rejected the early settlement offer.

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