Newspaper and website editors hate long headlines. Brevity is, undoubtedly, the soul of wit, but every now and then you need a "Judge Rules N.J. Woman Cannot Be Sued for Sending Text to Driver Who Crashed Into Motorcycle." Short and sweet couldn't begin to explain what happended or why it's newsworthy.
The accident at issue occurred on September 21, 2009, when a young man crossed the center line of a road near Dover, New Jersey (NJ). He was exchanging text messages via smartphone with his girlfriend and lost control of his car. A husband and wife traveling in the opposite direction on a motorcycle were hit head-on and suffered leg injuries so severe that they each required partial amputations of one limb.
During the following years, the at-fault driver pleaded guilty to causing the crash and driving while distracted. The accident victims filed a personal injury claim against the man, and their attorney, Stephen “Skippy” Weinstein also asked a civil court judge to hold the driver's girlfriend liable. Weinstein put forth the original legal theory that because the young woman knew, or should have known, that the person she was communicating with via cell phone was driving, she could be considered an accessory to or proximate cause of the distraction.
Passengers can be held liable for creating distractions for drivers, as can any number of people or objects outside of moving vehicles. No court has ever held, however, that a person on a call with or sending texts to a driver intentionally or negligently created a distraction.
Because of Morris County Superior Court Judge David Rand's May 25, 2012, decision to dismiss the texting women as a defendant in the case, the precedent of holding text senders liable for crashes caused by text recipients remains unset.
I agree with Judge Rand on this legal interpretation. Outside of extraordinary circumstances, a driver has sole responsibility for keeping his or her car, truck, minivan or SUV under control and out of an accident. Hearing a ringing cell phone or pinging smartphone is a very ordinary circumstance. Anyone behind the wheel of a moving vehicle must be held accountable for injuries or deaths caused by his or her failure to ignore that particular intrusion and distraction.
My Virginia (VA) personal injury law firm colleagues and I have helped many motorcycle riders, pedestrians and car drivers and passengers hospitalized and disabled by distracted driving. Few of those cases involved cell phone or smartphone use, but no distraction excuses a driver from liability for injuring another person.