A court in New Jersey ruled that someone who knowingly distracts a driver by text message could be held at least partially responsible if that text results in a car crash.
A teenager was driving his truck down a rural highway when he received a text from a friend. His truck drifted across the center line, and hit a motorcycle head-on.
The collision nearly severed the leg of the motorcycle driver, and crushed the leg of the passenger. The left legs of both had to be amputated.
The injured parties filed suit against the driver of the truck – and against the girl who was texting him at the time of the crash.
The young people had sent each other over 60 text message that day, according to the case discovery. At that point, the plaintiff’s attorney argued, the sender of the test was electronically in the car with the driver, and should be treated like a passenger who is willfully distracting the driver.
The lawsuit against the driver was settled. The New Jersey jurors did not find the friend texting him liable.
The plaintiffs filed an appeal, and the appellate court was tasked with deciding if the lawsuit against the texter could go forward. The judges said it could not. However, 2 of the 3 appellate judges signed on to this part of the ruling, stating:
“When the sender knows that the text will reach the driver while operating a vehicle, the sender has a relationship to the public who use the roadways similar to that of a passenger physically present in the vehicle.” (emphasis added)
While texter in this case could not be held liable, the ruling opens the door for future claims. If the texter knew or should know that the driver would look at that text while driving – this requires a special relationship in the eyes of the law, like employer-employee – then that person has a duty not to willfully distract the driver in those circumstances.
The texter may be partially liable if the driver causes a car accident.
In short, criminal laws have not changed. However, it is possible (if unlikely) that a civil lawsuit could be brought against a person who knowingly texted with a driver who caused an accident.