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Are You Liable For Sending a Text To a Friend Who Causes an Accident?

Craig McClellan

Texting behind the wheel continues to be a hot topic in the news—especially as the number of distracted driving car accidents increases across the nation. A case out of New Jersey has raised new questions regarding liability in car accidents caused by texting.

Controversial Case Raises Questions on Texting

In September 2009, a 19-year-old was driving home from work in his pickup truck when he lost control and crossed into the other lane, hitting a couple on a motorcycle. The accident resulted in serious injuries for both of the motorcyclists. After being taken to the hospital, each motorcyclist lost a leg due to their injuries.

An investigation into the accident revealed that the 19-year-old pickup driver was texting his girlfriend when he crossed over the middle line. In a lawsuit against the driver of the truck, the motorcyclists also included the driver’s girlfriend. The lawsuit applied the legal concepts of foreseeability and proximate cause to the 17-year-old who should have known (or perhaps did know) that he was driving while she was texting him. Because of this, the lawsuit alleged that she was also responsible for the distracted driving accident, having "aided and abetted" the truck driver by texting him.

At trial, the 17-year-old girlfriend’s lawyer pointed out that it would be difficult for those who send text messages to be held liable because senders have no control over where or when a recipient will read and respond to a message. The judge agreed, holding in an oral opinion that someone cannot be sued for "helping cause an accident" by sending text messages.

Updated January 2016

In 2013, the injured motorcyclists appealed the court’s decision not to hold the driver’s girlfriend liable for aiding in the accident. They again argued that the text sender was electronically present in the vehicle with the driver and should be treated like someone physically present and willfully causing distraction.

Three appeals court judges agreed with this appeal—though only in principle. They stated that the sender of a text message could potentially be held liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if he or she knew the recipient was driving at the time they sent the text.

However, the judges still let the driver’s girlfriend off the hook because she denied any knowledge of her boyfriend driving while she texted him. Resulting legislation quickly followed the case rulings.

Resulting Legislations from the Case

New Jersey passed a law based on the fates of the motorcyclists and others who had been killed or injured by texting drivers. This law makes distracted driving a crime and involves fines up to $150,000 and 10 years of jail time. Another legislation proposed would let police thumb through cellphones if they have reasonable grounds to believe the driver was talking or texting at the time of the wreck.

How to Approach Texting a Driver

It is important to remember that if texters know recipients are driving, it may be best to wait on sending a text message—even if they don’t intend for them to read the message while they are driving. Likewise, it's important for drivers to remember that taking the time to respond to a text message while driving could result in severe or even fatal injuries and lawsuits against them and the person they're texting.

If you have been injured by a distracted driver, consult our San Diego car accident attorneys at The McClellan Law Firm for sound advice and legal representation