Based upon judicial decisions in recent years, there appears to be a legal basis for asking the question, “Can you be held liable for sending a text to a driver causing an accident?’
Two cases have opened the door to accident victims seeking damages from those that knowingly send texts to those operating motor vehicles at the time. One suit followed a 2009 motorcycle accident in New Jersey, while the other followed a 2014 motorcycle accident in Pennsylvania. Both the cases garnered national attention because text senders were sued.
In the New Jersey case, a subsequent opinion rendered by the New Jersey Court of Appeals, (Kubert v. Best, No. A-1128-12T4 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Aug. 27, 2013) agreed with the general proposition that an individual might be found liable if he/she texts someone known to be operating a motor vehicle at the time, if the motorist is subsequently distracted and gets into a wreck.
Head-on Collision in New Jersey
In September 2009, a married couple was riding their motorcycle on a New Jersey road. An oncoming truck drifted into their lane, hitting them head-on. A subsequent investigation revealed that the young male motorist was texting back and forth with his girlfriend just before the crash.
The relevance of the timing of the texts was supported by a claim that just 17 seconds elapsed from the driver’s receipt of the final text message and his 911 call to report the head-on collision.
The husband and the wife suffered severe injuries. Each individual lost their left leg in the crash.
Victims Seek Compensation
The couple later brought suit against the both driver of the truck and his girlfriend, claiming that both individuals were responsible for their injuries. They reached a settlement agreement with the driver before trial. The case against the sender of the texts did go to trial, and the plaintiffs did not prevail.
The attorney for the plaintiff appealed the lower court’s decision, arguing that the person sending the texts should be treated the same as someone willfully distracting the driver while actually in the vehicle.
In August 2013, the New Jersey Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision, although its ruling suggests that a sender could be found liable under certain circumstances. In the appellate decision, a three-judge panel agreed with the general principle of sender liability. However, they ruled against the plaintiff because it was not proven that the texter had sufficient knowledge of the fact that her boyfriend was driving at the time and that he would immediately view the text. The appellate panel suggested 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.”
Although the plaintiff in that particular New Jersey case did not prevail, the appellate court decision may provide a basis for future claims of negligence on the part of those knowingly sending texts to drivers who crash and injure others.
Accident in Pennsylvania
In 2016, a Lawrence County (PA) judge ruled that it is possible for a plaintiff to move forward with civil litigation seeking compensation from two text senders following a fatal traffic accident. The judge referred to the New Jersey appellate decision in making his ruling.
In 2014, a motorist was allegedly distracted by texts to the point that she failed to notice that a motorcyclist in front of her vehicle had slowed to turn. According to court documents, the motorcyclist was dragged approximately 100 feet, and he did not survive. The motorist pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and she served 60 days in jail.
Subsequent civil litigation sought monetary damages from the driver and two text senders. In 2016, despite objections from the two men accused of sending her texts at the time of the accident, the judge ruled that a civil lawsuit could proceed against both of them. The assertion is that one or both individuals “aided and abetted” the driver in violation of state distracted driving statutes.
With regards to texting while driving, Minnesota State § 169.475 says that, ”No person may operate a motor vehicle while using a wireless communications device to compose, read, or send an electronic message, when the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic.” Although this statute clearly pertains to the motorist, the cases noted above suggest that it may become possible to hold the sender of the text liable under certain circumstances, particularly if the sender knew that the recipient was driving.
It is possible that some types of text senders are more likely to be linked to distracted driving accidents. For example, it is possible that an employer or co-worker who routinely texts a driver could be found liable because of their special knowledge of when the driver is on the road.
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If you or a family member is a victim in a crash, we make it possible for you to speak with a personal injury attorney free of charge and without obligation. We work hard to get our clients the full compensation they deserve under all applicable laws and legal precedents. To ask your questions or to learn more about our legal services, please contact us.
This webpage contains general information and not legal advise. It is based on Minnesota law in effect at the time of writing. An attorney at Farrish Johnson Law Office, Chtd can advise you about how the law applies to your specific situation.