Texting While Driving: New Twist on Liability and Car Accidents Causes Concern for Motorists/Friends and Family

In this technology-driven age, texting while driving is undoubtedly the most rampant of the distracted driving culprits. It has become so much of an issue that many states, including Georgia, have in recent years implemented bans against the practice – hoping that discouraging the conduct will subsequently curtail the number of car accidents that result. Georgia codified its ban three years ago, in 2010. The law, O.C.G.A. § 40-6-241.1, applies to all drivers in the state. Furthermore, acknowledging that young drivers most often fall prey to the call of the cell, a full cell phone ban was promulgated that same year against motorists under the age of 18. Violators in both instances face a penalty of $150 upon conviction, plus a point against their driving history.

Since that time, more serious offenses (e.g. distracted driving coupled with substance abuse) have carried the potential for stiffer penalties when an injured party actually files a lawsuit. Recently, some Georgia courts have held that texting while driving may result in personal liability of a kind beyond the protection of insurance coverage.

The laws have certainly experienced a certain degree of success. In fact, Georgia’s laws on distracted driving are so effectively worded that the state was one of only seven selected to receive a grant from the Department of Transportation to help combat the epidemic. Georgia topped the list of seven with a grant of $1.63 million. So, it seems, the laws are here to stay.

With resolution of a recent case, however, Atlanta personal injury attorneys know to keep an eye out for even more developments in this area of the law. Although the case in question was in a different jurisdiction, surely it’s only a matter of time until Georgia is faced with a similar issue. According to the Associated Press, during the last week of August, a New Jersey state appeals court held that “a person who knowingly sends a text to a driver can share liability if the driver causes an accident.”

The holding stemmed from a case in which a couple injured in a 2009 accident first sued the driver, who was texting when he struck their motorcycle, then, after settling with him, pursued an action against the driver’s girlfriend, who had been texting him shortly before the time of the incident. While the court dismissed the actual lawsuit, it saw validity in the premise that “someone who texts a motorist can potentially be liable if the sender knew the recipient would view the text while driving.”

The majority’s rationale, as one media outlet noted, effectively puts the texter in the passenger seat of the car (as if purposefully and negligently distracting the driver), though he may be miles away. This rationale will be especially interesting if posited in a litigated case, which it soon may be. The language of the court’s opinion ostensibly opens the matter up to civil litigation, but also makes room for some interesting questions – primarily one of proof. “We conclude that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving,” says the court. This essentially means that car accident attorneys and triers of fact alike will have to probe into the texter’s state of mind. One thing is abundantly clear, as CNN reporter Doug Gross suggested, the case may have just “opened up a whole new front in the war on texting and driving.”

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