Texting a Driver Exposes You to Liability

The headline’s more symbolic than anything; an attention grabber. But, in the grand scheme of political and judicial evolution, we’ll see some changes. Many states are enacting laws that restrict when drivers may send text messages or receive cell phone calls. I’ve written about the dangers of texting from a personal experience, and this story from New Jersey is bringing national attention.

Text to Meet Jesus

Apparently, two individuals were injured in a car wreck by an 18 year-old driver who was texting while driving. The victims sued the 18 year-old and the 17 year-old friend. The trial court dismissed the claim against the 17 year-old (obviously) because of proximate cause (see Futurelawyer’s write up of the case). The injured drivers appealed the dismissal of the 17 year-old loosely based on the fact that New Jersey prohibits texting while driving (requires the uses of a “hand-free” device). The issue presented was whether the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting. The Court held  that the sender can be liable, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted.

Now, there are tons of blogs, “legal specialists,” and others commenting on the first portion of this ruling. But many miss the limited nature of the holding. Many more are missing the fact that the Court upheld the summary judgment granted against the two drivers. Here’s the full opinion. I even heard one local “legal specialist” comment to a news station that he believes there’ll be a number of similar rulings from more states.

I can see some similar ruling from a state like California, but generally, I think this will remain a very limited ruling. And here’s why: it’s entirely difficult to determine whether someone is driving before or after sending a text message unless the driver discloses that they’re in the car during the text conversation.

The New Jersey Supreme Court even agreed: “affirmative steps and . . . substantial assistance”. There’s nothing in this case to show that either party actively encouraged the other to read and respond to the text messages.

The Court also held that merely sending a message won’t expose someone to liability:

[W]e also conclude that liability is not established by showing only that the sender directed the message to a specific identified recipient, even if the sender knew the recipient was then driving. We conclude that additional proofs are necessary to establish the sender’s liability, namely, that the sender also knew or had special reason to know that the driver would read the message while driving and would thus be distracted from attending to the road and the operation of the vehicle. We reach these conclusions by examining the law in analogous circumstances and applying “a full duty analysis”.

While I heartily agree we need more personal accountability to refrain from texting while driving, I don’t think more legislation, or even personal liability, will curb the texting outbreak.

What do you think?

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.