Could You Get Sued For Texting Someone While They Are Driving?

Image courtesy of Adam Fagen

However prevalent it may be, texting while driving is unsafe and, in most places, against the law. What those laws don’t address is the liability of the person on the other end of that text message. If you’re safe at home texting someone who then crashes their car, could you be held liable? It’s a possibility, according to some recent court rulings.

A Pennsylvania driver is currently being sued for wrongful death and negligence by the estate of a motorcycle rider who she killed with her vehicle when she was allegedly distracted by reading and responding to text messages on her phone.

The judge in this lawsuit was recently asked to determine if the two men who were texting the driver at the time of the incident could also be held accountable.

Both men — one of them the driver’s husband — raised preliminary objections, arguing that they should not have to face these allegations because Pennsylvania state law only prohibits drivers from texting while operating a vehicle and makes no mention of the responsibilities or liabilities of someone sending texts to the driver.

However, the judge ruled [PDF] in March that the lack of a specific law outlawing the sending of texts to a driver doesn’t automatically mean the sender of those texts is free of any liability.

The court’s rationale is that, if the texter knows — or has good reason to believe — that the person they are texting is operating a vehicle, they may ultimately share some responsibility if that other person crashes their car while reading or responding to the texts.

This ruling does not say that the two men are definitely liable or that they even did anything wrong; it only means that the lawsuit against the texters can continue.

In making this decision, the PA court relied heavily on a 2013 ruling by a New Jersey appeals court that also involved the culpability of someone who sent a text to a driver involved in a car crash.

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

At the same time, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the texter — a young teen who had messaged the driver immediately before he crashed into a couple on a motorcycle, resulting in each of the two victims losing their left leg.

The court said that had not presented sufficient evidence in their appeal to prove that the teen texter knew her friend was driving when she sent him the message.

Additionally, in order to hold a third party liable for the bad behavior of the driver, the court explained there would need to be a “special relationship” between the two, wherein the third party could have exerted some control over the driver’s conduct. The appeals court determined that no special relationship existed in this case, and that there was no evidence that the texts sent to the driver “actively encouraged him to text her while he was driving.”

“Even if a reasonable inference can be drawn that she sent messages requiring responses, the act of sending such messages, by itself, is not active encouragement that the recipient read the text and respond immediately, that is, while driving and in violation of the law,” reads the ruling.

The New Jersey court also rejected the umbrella argument that someone is liable simply because they know the person they are texting is driving. After all, one could send a text to a driver not expecting that person to see or respond to the message until later.

“[A]dditional proofs are necessary to establish the sender’s liability,” explained the court, “namely, that the sender also knew or had special reason to know that the driver would read the message while driving and would thus be distracted from attending to the road and the operation of the vehicle.”

Thus, while the court believes that remote text message senders can be liable if the person they are chatting with crashes their vehicle, it’s not a slam-dunk case for anyone who tries to bring a liability claim against the texter.

Though the Pennsylvania and New Jersey rulings don’t definitively settle the issue, University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith tells that these developments — along with the recent lawsuit against Snapchat for its speed-measuring feature, and New York’s “textalyzer” legislation — the legal system is starting to take distracted driving seriously.

“People often see distracted driving as a socially acceptable sin, a kind of inside joke writ large, an innocuous guilty pleasure in which everyone indulges,” says Smith. “The same used to be true of drunk driving, smoking and physical abuse [and other] actions with actual victims. These legal developments could signal that a similar change in thinking is underway regarding distracted driving. They could also help accelerate that change.”

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