It takes two to text, but one to crash

Penny Gusner

By

Consumer Analyst

Driver looking at cellphoneTypically you have no idea where the recipient of the message is when you press "send" on a text.  But what if you did know that George was driving to the store to get paper plates?

Should you be held partly responsible if he reads the message while driving and crashes?

This is indeed what Appeals Court judges in New Jersey suggest as part of a ruling in late August.

The decision by the court was the result of a case regarding a 17-year-old girl who had texted a friend right before he crashed his pickup truck into a couple on a motorcycle.   The injured couple sued the driver as well as the friend who texted him.

In this particular situation, the New Jersey Appeals Court decided the girl texting the driver could not be held liable because she was unaware that her friend was driving at the time of the text.  (In her deposition, she admitted sending more than 100 texts a day and being oblivious to where the recipients were at the time of the texts.)

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However, the judges certainly left the door open for future lawsuits involving texting by ruling “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.”

While the Governors Highway Safety Association says there are currently 41 states that ban texting while driving, none of these laws takes the sender outside of the vehicle into account.

And with good reason. If lawsuits are open to those sending texts, the complications are mind-boggling.

  • What is an acceptable reason to text a driver? ("Baby coming now, hurry!" is very different from "Will be 15 mins late.")
  • Who would have a "special reason to know" their texting partner was driving?
  • How much liability does the texter have versus the person driving?
  • How would the texter be punished by the state?
  • How would texters pay for their share of damages? Car insurance won't pay out because the texter isn't operating a vehicle.

The person behind the wheel should be responsible enough to wait until safely parked before checking a phone. Does anyone really disagree with this?

Back in New Jersey, an assemblywoman from Monmouth County responded to the ruling by proposing legislation to protect texters who send messages to recipients who happen to be driving. 

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande says her legislation “puts the responsibility where it belongs -- in the front seat with the driver -- not with the sender who can be held culpable for something beyond their control.”

What are your thoughts?  Should the sender of a text be held liable in any way for the actions of the text recipient?


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