Published on:

People Texting Drivers Could be Liable for Resulting Accidents

Drivers who text, snap photos or email while they are driving could find themselves liable – and possibly charged criminally – if their distraction results in a car accident. 

But what about the people with whom they are communicating?

A recent report by Vocativ reveals the legal landscape is shifting, and there are a number of cases that may lay the foundation for liability against those who text with persons they know or had reason to believe were driving.

It’s estimated that approximately 431,000 injuries and more than 3,200 deaths every year in the U.S. are attributable to driver distraction. Although the number of drunk driving injuries and fatalities is pegged at triple that, the reality is distracted driving is a lot tougher to determine after the fact.

Many drivers who may have been texting or looking down at the radio don’t necessarily report that information to investigators or insurers after a collision. And while DUI deaths have been falling in recent years, distracted driving accident most definitely have not.

But when it comes to liability for these crashes, it lies almost exclusively with the driver (or the vehicle owner).

But in a recent case out of Pennsylvania, Gallatin v. Gargiula, a judge decided that two men who were texting with a person they knew was driving – a person who in the midst of this communication caused a fatal crash – can be held liable for claims of negligence and wrongful death. The question will be whether the two men knowingly diverted the driver’s attention.

The judge’s decision in that case followed another ruling in 2013 in New Jersey, where,as the American Bar Association reported, the the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division ruled that a remote texter – that is, someone who is not in the car or with the person driving – can be held liable for injuries to third parties if the person with whom they are communicating is distracted by those messages and causes an accident. Critical to the cases, the court ruled, is that the defendant must have known they were being viewed by someone while he or she was driving. In the case that was immediately before the court, it was decided there was insufficient knowledge to show that a 17-year-old girl, a friend of an 18-year-old boy with whom she was texting, knew the young man was driving. Phone records did show the 18-year-old driver crashed into a motorcyclist just 30 seconds after receiving a text from his friend.

The court decided there was no evidence the girl had “actively encouraged” her friend to text her while driving, and she didn’t have a special relationship with him such that she could compel him or control him.

The idea is that if you alert people that this type of activity is actionable in civil court, it will drop substantially. Some legal scholars have opined this is an area of liability that is poised to expand greatly. Meanwhile, the question of whether manufacturers of the technology – like Snapchat, Facebook and others – could be held liable is another matter that is also being tested.

More recently, lawmakers in New York proposed the on-scene police use of a device called a “textalyzer.” Again, we know distracted driving is tough to measure. But this technology would allow an officer to take a phone at the scene and determined if it was used in a way that violated state law. (In New York, drivers can’t legally text or email or hold their phone to their ears with one hand.)

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Texting a Person While They’re Driving Could Land You in Jail, May 3, 2016, By Jennings Brown, Vocativ

More Blog Entries:

Maines v. Fox – Proving Car Accident-Related Injuries, May 3, 2016, Orlando Car Accident Attorney Blog

Contact Information