Should Texting a Driver Make You Liable for His Accident?

Posted on September 6, 2013

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I don’t think so, but a New Jersey appeals court has opened a Pandora’s Box of possible lawsuits against people who are nowhere near an accident scene – maybe even people and businesses who don’t even know you.

As CNN reports, a New Jersey couple who were maimed in a horrific accident caused by a texting teen driver sued not only the driver, but also his teen girlfriend who had been texting him while he was behind the wheel.  Their attorney argued that although she was not present, the texts had made her “electronically present” in the vehicle, making her no different from an unruly passenger willfully interfering with the driver.

While the texting girlfriend was not held liable in this particular case, the ruling did set a precedent for all manner of troublesome, expensive, and ineffective lawsuits in the future:

“We hold that the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, 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.”

Ooookay.  There’s a lot wrong with this concept.

1.  Drivers should be responsible for their own actions.  Period.  They are the ones who choose to get behind the wheel, they are the ones in control of the vehicle, and it is their responsibility to remain in control.

2.  Proving that a texter “knows” that the text recipient is driving, and will view the text while driving, will prove difficult at best.   For that matter, if I am physically located in some other state, or even some other country, and I knowingly text a driver and thus contribute to a crash, can the state of New Jersey claim that I was “present” in New Jersey and thus subject to their jurisdiction?

3.  The combination of “electronic presence in the car” with “special reason to know ” that a driver will be distracted, opens the door for all kinds of litigation silliness.  If you’re bobbing along to Lady Gaga and wreck, can you sue Lady Gaga for being “present” and distracting you?  Can you sue the radio station, the music publisher, the CD manufacturer?  How about books on tape?  Can I sue the car manufacturer for putting a GPS system in my car, knowing that I would fiddle with it while driving?  The artists, companies, publishers and broadcasters who produce and distribute all of these media should have special reason to know that these things are used by drivers everywhere; heck, they are intended to be used by drivers everywhere.  Then there are the things like Facebook, Twitter, or email, which were not envisioned for use by drivers, but which drivers are fiddling with anyway.  So, if I wreck while I’m updating my Facebook page, I can argue that Mark Zuckerberg was electronically present in my vehicle and distracting me, and everyone knows that people abuse electronic devices while driving, so of course he had reason to know that I might open up Facebook while driving.  Never mind that this was never his intent when he created Facebook.  And never mind that this is not the intent of the New Jersey ruling.  The door has been opened a crack, and you can bet that lawyers will find a way to stampede through it.

4.  Drivers should be responsible for their own actions.  Period.  They are the ones who choose to get behind the wheel, they are the ones in control of the vehicle, and it is their responsibility to remain in control.

No, that last one was not a typo.  It’s in there first and last because it is all that really matters, first and last, but the New Jersey appeals court loses sight of that.

The New Jersey plaintiffs and appeals court have provided us with a stunning example of just how such misguided legal actions contribute to the total weirdness of the America legal system when it comes to personal responsibility.

First, the plaintiffs sued someone who was not even present at the scene, and tried to make her responsible for their damages.  I get it, I really do.  Two stupid, oblivious, irresponsible and unsympathetic teens cost those plaintiffs their legs, for God’s sake, and I think people should pay, both in terms of punishment and restitution, for that kind of damage.  But lashing out and trying to snare everyone connected to the defendant, even by the most tenuous thread, is not the way to go.

Second, while we want to hold everyone else accountable for bad things that happen to us, we tend avoid responsibility for the bad things we do.  See, someone else is always to blame.  So this ruling could potentially have the perverse effect of leading to more drivers claiming they were “interfered with” by the “electronic presence” of someone else in the car.  It seems far-fetched and ridiculous, but if someone else is even partly responsible for the fact that a driver answered a text while driving, then it follows logically that such a driver would also not be fully responsible for answering emails or Tweets while driving, fiddling with his GPS or car radio, dancing wildly to his music, or any of a host of other electronically-based activities.

So once more:  drivers should be responsible for their own actions.  Period.  They are the ones who choose to get behind the wheel, they are the ones in control of the vehicle, and it is their responsibility to remain in control.

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