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Distracted Driving and the Liability of Remote Texters

Written by Ankin Law Office

It’s common sense that driving while distracted is a dangerous combination. From sending text messages to talking on a cell phone, distracted driving caused by the use of cell phones and tablets is responsible for thousands of accidents every year. For this reason, the State of Illinois enacted legislation on January 1, 2014 that severely restricts the use of these devices while driving. As of that date, drivers may only use their mobile technology via bluetooth or speakerphones while they’re behind the wheel. Moreover, the new law, 625 ILCS 5/12-610.2, specifically prohibits the sending or reading of text messages while driving.

(article continues below infographic)

Distracted driving and the liability of remote texters infographic

Violations are considered a Class A misdemeanor. It is a primary offense which means that law enforcement may stop drivers specifically for violating it, and it’s at their sole discretion as to whether they’ll issue a citation. Citations may be issued for $75 for a first offense, and increasing $25 per each subsequent offense. However, should a driver be distracted by texting or talking while driving, then be involved in an auto accident that results in a fatality, the driver may be charged with a Class 4 felony. Thus, the law is very clear that drivers will be held accountable for their actions while they’re behind the wheel.

Prohibiting texting and talking while driving is saving lives

According to official statistics compiled by the NHTSA, when similar laws began being passed around the nation in 2012, auto accidents and deaths due to distracted driving decreased by 6.7% by 2013. Even so, in 2013, 3,154 people died in auto accidents as the result distracted drivers using everything from cell phones to eating sandwiches. Of these, roughly 10% were under the age of 20, and 27% were drivers between 20-30 years of age. Combined, individuals within these demographics send the bulk of the more than 150 billion text messages sent every year.

As of 2015, 46 states ban all forms of texting while driving. However, only 14 states have bans in place similar to those within Illinois in that they completely prohibit the use of handheld devices by drivers. These laws are being enforced with vigor and as the prevalence of cell phone technology increases, it is increasingly important for motorists to be aware of the law and adhere to it for both their own personal safety and the safety of other motorists on the road.

Remote texters may also be held liable for their texts

As these early prohibitions were going into effect, many legal challenges and questions arose. Chief among them was whether or not the sender of a text message, i.e “remote texters,” could be held liable for the sending of a message that was then read by a driver who was then involved in an auto accident resulting in injury or death.

The question was decided by the Superior Court of New Jersey in Kubert v. Best & Colonna in August 2013. The case stems from a 2009 accident in which David Kubert and his wife Linda were riding their motorcycle when they were hit by Kyle Best who was distracted by a text sent by Shannon Colonna. In the accident, both Mr. and Mrs. Kubert suffered serious injury which resulted in the need to have each of their left legs amputated.

The Kubert’s sued not only Mr. Best for reading the text, but also Mrs. Colonna for sending the text. After considerable discussion, the Superior Court of New Jersey held that Mrs. Colonna was not liable under common law for sending the distracting text even though she was fully aware that the recipient was operating a motor vehicle.  In their ruling the court held that a driver is solely responsible for their decision to read and/or answer text messages while driving.

In their decision, the Superior Court referenced the Supreme Court’s full duty analysis which holds that in certain circumstances a remote texter could be held liable should that individual be in a position to exercise considerable control or authority over the recipient and their actions. In such a case, the remote texter would need to be fully aware that the recipient would become distracted by the text and likely to respond immediately disregarding safety in the process.

The future of the law

While the court ruled that holding remote texters liable for auto accidents in Chicago and throughout Illinois may be possible, they’ve also set a high evidentiary bar to protect remote texters from being sued. As of today, it’s a bar that has not been achieved even though similar cases have been brought forth. Given the increasing use and integration of cellular technology in our nation, it’s an issue that is most certainly going to come up with increasing frequency in the future. As such, it’s important for drivers to adhere to the existing prohibitions and abstain from using their cell phones and tablets while driving. Doing so is the only way to ensure that they, and anyone texting them, won’t be held liable for the injury or death of other motorists.

Categories: Auto Accidents