Car Accident Injury Liability for Texters NOT Behind the Wheel?

The dangers of texting and driving have been well publicized in recent years, and yet the dangerous behavior continues anyway, particularly among inexperienced teen drivers.
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Our Rutherfordton car accident lawyers know that in cases where distraction by texting has been found to be a contributing factor in the crash, there is ample grounds for litigation and compensation.

But what about the person on the other end of that fateful text? A New Jersey appellate court recently issued a ruling indicating that person could be held liable for the crash as well.

It may seem like a bit of a leap initially and, to be fair, this is among the first of any rulings of this kind. However, it’s entirely possible that as long as we continue to see crashes caused by texting, other courts could adopt this same stance. That could change the way personal injury lawyers approach these cases.

In this situation, media outlets report that a couple was riding on a motorcycle back in 2009 when they were sideswiped by a large pickup truck that had drifted across the dotted yellow line while traveling in the opposite direction.

Both riders on the motorcycle – a husband and wife – lost part of a leg.

The driver of that pickup truck was 18 at the time of the crash. He was clearly at fault, and the couple sued and ultimately won a settlement against him and his insurance company.

However, the wronged couple then took it a step farther. They also filed suit against the 17-year-old girl who had sent the 18-year-old male driver a text message at the time of the crash. She reportedly sent him a single text that he received shortly before the crash. The driver was responding to that text when the crash occurred.

The question before the New Jersey appeals court was whether the couple on the motorcycle had a legitimate case against the girl. Ultimately, the judges decided that no, they did not, but only because there was no evidence that the girl realized that the person she was texting was driving at the time.

However, the judges did set forth a standard: At minimum, the plaintiff would have to show that the person sending the text knew the receiver was behind the wheel and beyond that, he or she recognized that the person driving would be likely to open the message and read it while driving.

Now, this is a high standard to meet – but it allows for a case to potentially be brought, nonetheless. While one of the three judges dissented in this aspect of the ruling, the majority wrote that when the sender knows the text is going to reach someone who is driving, the sender “has a relationship to the public who use the roadways similar to that of a passenger physically present in the vehicle.” Further, the justices wrote, a passenger has a duty to avoid distracting the driver. A person who sends a text remotely, knowing the recipient is driving, must likewise avoid distracting the driver.

One parallel we might draw from this are dram shop laws. These are the laws that hold party hosts or bartenders liable for allowing someone to continue to drink when he or she has knowledge that the drunk party is about to drive.

However, these can be tough laws to enforce because it’s tough to hold one person accountable for another person’s bad behavior.

But that doesn’t mean, under certain circumstances, that it would be impossible.

In North Carolina, it is illegal for under-18 drivers to text or talk on the phone while the vehicle is in motion. The exceptions for a minor talking on the phone would be if the driver were speaking to an emergency response operator, a hospital, a doctor’s office, a health clinic, an ambulance service, a fire department, a law enforcement agency, or the driver’s parent, legal guardian or spouse.

There is little evidence that this law has had much of an impact since it was implemented in late 2007, given that the penalty is a $25 fine.

The state also bars all drivers from texting or reading a text message while driving. Fines and court fees for this offense, which became illegal in 2009, include a $100 fine and court fees of at least $130. However, a violation would not result in the addition of any points to one’s license.

If you or a loved one is involved in an accident, contact Grimes Teich Anderson LLP. Call 1.800.533.6845. No Attorney Fees Until You’ve Been Paid, exclusive of case costs.

Additional Resources:
Don’t Text to a Driver! Aug. 29, 2013, By Emily Bazelon, Slate.com
More Blog Entries:
North Carolina Car Insurance – Myths & Misconceptions, Aug. 2, 2013, Rutherfordton Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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