Liability of Drivers and Their Employers in Distracted Driving Accidents

Drivers have dealt with distractions since the invention of the automobile. The explosive growth in the use of cell phones, however, has compounded the risks presented by distracted driving. Drivers who use their cell phones to talk, send text messages, or even read e-mail or web pages cause thousands of accidents around the country every year. A member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency that investigates accidents and recommends safety regulations, went so far as the call distracted driving an “epidemic.” People injured by a distracted driver generally have a clear claim for damages from that driver. While courts have rejected attempts to recover damages from cell phone companies, plaintiffs have recovered from drivers’ employers, when the driver was engaged in work-related activities.

Distracted driving accounted for as many as 3,092 deaths in traffic accidents in 2010, according to the federal government. It was a factor in up to eighteen percent of all injury accidents that year. The government identifies three types of distraction:

Manual: where the driver takes one or both hands off the wheel.
Visual: where the driver is not watching the road.
Cognitive: where the driver’s attention (or mind) is not on the road.

Studies have suggested that even the use of a hands-free device like a headset does not improve overall safety, because it does not reduce cognitive distraction.

Indiana, like most states, has enacted laws restricting the use of cell phones while driving. Thirty-nine states, including Indiana, and the District of Columbia prohibit text messaging while driving. Indiana also prohibits drivers under the age of eighteen from any cell phone use while driving. Other laws include a ban on all handheld cell phone use (ten states and D.C.), and handheld cell phone use by school bus drivers (nineteen states and D.C.) No state has a ban on all cell phone use, including hands-free devices, although the NTSB recommended such a ban last year.

Most damage claims related to an accident rely on the legal theory of negligence. This requires a plaintiff to prove four elements: the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, the defendant breached it, the breach caused the accident, and the plaintiff suffered actual injuries. Distracted driving constitutes a clear breach of every driver’s duty to drive safely, leaving only causation and damages. Cell phones often serve as evidence in civil claims and criminal investigations alike.

In some cases, the legal doctrine of respondeat superior allows an accident victim to recover from a driver’s employer, if the driver was performing job duties at the time of the accident. Employers have begun to take notice of this, as have the courts. Courts have also been creative in their application of the rule. Bloomberg reports on the case of an off-duty police officer driving his patrol car while on his phone. A court held the police department liable because, although the officer was off-duty, he appeared to be on the job to a reasonable person.

At Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse, we help the victims of automobile accidents and their families obtain compensation for their damages. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers, contact us today online, or call (888) 532-7766.

Web Resources:

Employer Liability and the Case for Comprehensive Cell Phone Policies (PDF), National Safety Council, 2012


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