Everyone knows you should never drink and drive, and we know that talking on the phone while driving can be just as dangerous. In 2017, now that technology has expanded and progressed our methods of electronic communication, a new danger has become even more common on the roads: texting and driving. Many states have already passed laws against texting and driving, and countrywide media certainly campaigns against it. But, there may be a whole other layer to this potentially deadly activity that most people have never considered.
Could you, sitting at home and watching TV, cooking in your kitchen or going about your personal home life, still find yourself liable in a legal case related to an accident caused by texting and driving?
The Answer? Yes. You absolutely could be.
In the state of New Jersey, a recent ruling found that the sender of a text message to an automobile driver was partially at fault, specifically if the sender of the text was aware that the recipient was operating a motor vehicle. The case found its way to the New Jersey court in September 2009, when a young truck driver crossed the median and collided with a married couple riding their motorcycle. The truck driver had been inattentive to the road because he was checking a series of text messages on his phone.
Both victims in the accident subsequently lost their left legs and suffered other formidable injuries. The couple proceeded to sue both the truck driver and his friend, the one who had been texting the driver at the time of the collision. The idea behind this subsequent lawsuit was that the texter was the inherent source of the distraction and thus the fundamental cause of the collision. While the case against the truck driver ended in a pretrial settlement, the case against the texter eventually went to full trial, carrying the argument that sending the messages to the active driver carried as much blame as if the texter had been physically in the vehicle. The court finally concluded that the prosecutions argument was indeed valid, but only if the texter knew that his friend had been driving a car at the time. As this particular case lacked enough sufficient evidence to prove the latter, the couple lost their court case against the truck driver’s texting friend.
Though this troubling new legal perspective may potentially be lifesaving, the extent of possible liability opens up something of a grey area, and more than a few questions. In order to be liable for another person’s accident, would one need to be unreservedly sure that the recipient of a text was driving a vehicle, or would the mere suggestion of driving an automobile be enough for a texter to face charges? In the eyes of the jury, to what extent must the prosecution prove that any given texter was aware of a text recipient’s driving activities? Must the evidence prove ABSOLUTELY that the texter knew the recipient was driving, or would evidence merely need to indicate the possibility of such knowledge in order to make the texter liable?
The long and short of these answers is that it all depends on the nature of the charges and the court in which they are presented. In a criminal case, which could involve criminal negligence or even higher charges, knowledge of involvement of texting and driving must be proven without any logical uncertainty. In a civil case, however, such logical charges are conditional regarding prevalence of evidence. In other words, you might not be liable in a criminal case if you didn’t know for certain that the person you were texting was driving, but a civil case might still find you guilty.
Say that the court finds you to have texted someone while you were aware that he or she was driving, an argument in your defense is still on the table. Just because a driver received a text message from you while driving, this does not necessarily mean that this text distracted the driver, or that the driver even looked at the text message in the first place; whatever distraction led the driver to an accident could have been something else entirely. Again, these questions are open for debate, but be advised that in some states, such as in Alabama, a civil court will likely assume that any text sent to a driver, while operating a vehicle, will absolutely be read and resultantly cause a distraction.
By extension, the possibility exists that future rulings on the matter of texting and driving could affect multiple other forms of electronic communication. If texting a driver can be considered causing a distraction, can this same logic apply to, say, Facebook or Instagram notifications? Then there’s the question of ride share apps and services that are increasingly growing in popularity; these are apps like Uber and Lyft, which allow users to call for rides from Uber and Lyft drivers, often while said drivers are currently operating their vehicles. If calling an Uber or Lyft driver results in this driver becoming distracted and causes an accident thereafter, could the person having sent for the ride face any liability?
Unfortunately, answers to these and the many more questions that will arise from the matter are contingent upon future court cases and rulings. It is going to take time and trials to determine the nature of criminal and injury liability in the matter of texting and dealing with electronic notifications while driving.
Regardless of how the courts proceed and what decisions judges are to make, the legal services of JM & T are experienced in the matters of accident liability and criminal injury cases. Whether you or someone you know is charged in a case of accident liability, or if you have been injured and are seeking legal retribution, call us today at JM & T for a free consultation.