Distracted Driving Collisions: Should Liability Extend Beyond the Driver?
The dangers of texting while driving have been well established and California law prohibits the practice as of January 1, 2009. However, a recent New Jersey case is raising questions of whether a person who is not in the car and who knowingly texts a driver should be liable, explains a California personal injury lawyer.
In the state of California, a Wireless Communications Device Law went into effect on January 1, 2009 that banned texting while driving a vehicle. This law has implications both because people may be ticketed if they are texting while driving but also because it can make it easier to impose civil liability on someone who causes an accident while texting and driving.
When a car accident occurs, the person who caused the car accident can be held civilly liable for injuries. This means that those injured in the accident could file a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault driver. Car accident lawsuits typically require an injured victim to show that the responsible driver behaved in a negligent way and that the negligence was the direct cause of the car accident. This meant that a car accident victim involved in a texting case had to demonstrate that the texting driver was unreasonably careless and that no reasonable person would have behaved so negligently behind the wheel.
Once the texting law passed, the victim of a California texting accident now had another option: negligence per se. Negligence per se is a legal doctrine allowing for the assumption of negligence when someone violates a safety law and causes harm as a result. In other words, the plaintiff in a texting case no longer has to prove the texting driver was negligent. Since the driver violated a safety law by texting, he or she is assumed to have behaved negligently in doing so.
While this law makes it easier for car accident victims to take legal action against a texting driver, it relates only to the person who is driving while texting. It does not address the person who is texting someone despite knowing that person is driving. In fact, there are currently no laws in California or in any other state that prohibit any person from knowingly texting someone who is behind the wheel at the time.
One plaintiff in New Jersey, however, is asking the New Jersey court to rule that the person who was texting the driver should be held responsible for injuries arising from the car accident as well. The case involves a couple named David and Linda Kubert, who each lost a leg in an accident with a driver named Kyle Best. Kyle was texting with his girlfriend Shannon Colonna at the time when he hit the couple. The Kuberts decided to sue not only Kyle but also Shannon, who the plaintiffs' attorney alleges was "electronically present" for the accident.
Shannon and Kyle had exchanged 62 text messages over the course of the day when the accident occurred. Allegedly, Shannon knew that Kyle was driving and thus did something illegal when texting him since texting while driving is illegal in New Jersey. The plaintiff's attorney has attempted to compare her actions to the actions of a party host who is held responsible if he or she serves alcohol to someone who later gets behind the wheel and hurts others.
The New Jersey case raised interesting questions regarding how far liability should extend. However, The Wall Street Journal reported that the judge recently ruled that the girlfriend could not be held liable because it was the motorist who had the duty to exercise care and avoid causing an accident, not the person at home texting.
The judge expressed concern that if he extended liability to the person creating the distraction, there would potentially be no limit as far as where liability ended. Billboards and push notifications from news websites, for example, are the same type of potential distractions that existed in this case and it is always the duty of the driver to avoid them.
This decision, it can be argued, is in keeping with longstanding tradition regarding negligence liability cases. For a negligent party to be liable, the party must owe a duty. The duty must be breached and the breach must be the direct cause of a foreseeable injury. When the chain of causation is broken—i.e., when there is a superseding intervening act that causes injury—then no liability exists. In this case, the superseding intervening act was the decision of the driver to look at the text and not to behave in a safe manner while driving. Further, Shannon was at home, not in the car, and therefore had no relationship with other drivers on the road. Thus, no duty existed.
Additional information on state texting laws and on issues concerning the personal injury claims process is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
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