Alabama Supreme Court Continues to Define Wanton Conduct in Regard to Driving

February 2023 • Source: Bailey Curtis, Clark, May, Price, Lawley, Duncan & Paul, LLC

Recently, the Alabama Supreme Court released its opinion in Renee v. Sines, where the Court examined wanton conduct in the context of a driver using their phone. No. 1210037, 2023 Ala. LEXIS 9 (Feb. 17, 2023). Before Renee, the Court has declined to give examples of what specific actions by a driver constitute wantonness. In the opinion, the Court affirmed that a jury may consider speeding and cell phone use as evidence of wanton conduct, especially where the driver recognizes that each is a potentially dangerous activity. Id. at 6. 

This case arises from an auto accident where the driver, while consciously speeding, took her eyes off the road and picked up her cell phone to change the song.  Passengers in her vehicle had asked her to slow down.  She then ran into traffic that was stopped in front of her before hitting another car head on. 

The Alabama Supreme Court acknowledged that self-destructive behavior may establish wantonness when the conduct simultaneously endangers others and the defendant , such as driving under the consumption of alcohol. The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that there was substantial evidence the driver acted wantonly by “intentionally violating the speed limit, while actively engaging with her mobile phone while driving, and with the knowledge that her actions constituted a risk of probable harm to herself and her passengers.” 

The driver attempted to argue that she was only momentarily distracted, however, the Court made the distinction that the driver’s conduct rose above mere distraction when the driver the made conscious decision to pick up and engage with her phone.  Thus, making this action a result of a conscious choice, not a mere distraction from inadvertence. The Court further stated, “active phone use like texting, browsing the internet, or engaging with a music app is qualitatively different from distractions that are not the result of a conscious act or that arise from an inadvertent reaction to some external event or stimulus.”

This opinion has the potential to increase amount of wantonness claims that are brought before an Alabama jury. Not only does the Court give examples of what specific actions by a driver constitute wantonness, they also lay the ground work that other distractions that are the result of a conscious act can give rise to a viable wantonness claim.  Defendants can expect to see this logic and argument used in future cases, including commercial vehicle accidents.