2013
09.04

If you text a driver, you just might be held liable if the driver causes an accident. At least that is what a New Jersey State Appeals court has determined.

This case dates back to an accident that occurred in September 2009 when then 18-year-old Kyle Best had been sending and receiving texts according to court documents. Shortly after sending a text, Best’s truck crossed over the double center line of the road striking Linda and David Kubert’s motorcycle head-on causing serious injury to both passengers.

The Kuberts sued not only Best, but they targeted the third-party sender of the text, which was then 17-year-old Shannon Colonna. The Kuberts contended that Colonna distracted Best while he drove, as she should also be held responsible for their pain and loss. They eventually settled with Best and the court ruled in favor of Colonna, not finding her at fault. Ironically though, the Kuberts were not satisfied with the ruling and appealed the decision.

Last week, the Appellate Court held that insufficient knowledge was demonstrated to defeat a motion for summary judgment, but did concur in principle with the idea that the sender of the text should be liable if an accident occurs if specific conditions are met. Here’s the key point: If you know a person is driving and texting and you intentionally participate in texting the driver at the same time, a court may hold the sender responsible for the distraction and liable if an accident occurs.

Here’s my issue. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? While I am a strong advocate against texting while driving, I have to take issue with this case. I get it. We are trying to put a stop to the 5,400 deaths (15 per day) and the more than half a million injuries (1,200 per day) every year when a driver is distracted due to sending a text or grabbing for a cellphone as a result of distracted driving.

However, is it really right to go after the third party? At some point each of us has to take some personal responsibility for our actions. We can’t blame everyone else for the things we do. I am a proponent of encouraging drivers to put down their phones when they drive. The more we educate, the stiffer the fines, and perhaps a little more legislation, but I’m not convinced we are going about it the right way here. Punishing the people who send the text because the receiver can’t show a little restrain seems to be extreme.

I understand the New Jersey decision also stresses that the individual sending the texts must have prior knowledge that the recipient would be driving at the time he or she would be viewing the texts, but again the onus needs to be on the receiver. I also believe we are opening Pandora’s Box here. Lawyers are going to go after more and more third-parties for larger settlements. And I want to know who is covering all the costs, mental anguish, lost time from work, etc., when the lawyers fail to make their case attempting to go after these individuals, such as in the case of Colonna. Has anyone reimbursed her for this three-year ordeal?

This case is going to be a civil nightmare and lawyers are going to have a free-for-all trying to sort it all out as the ambulance chasers seek to capitalize on the personal anguish of other families involved here. Colonna is a perfect example. But I can only hope that level heads prevail. Let’s think before we file another lawsuit. Do we really need to destroy another life? There are no winners here. Money doesn’t bring back a loved one. So as I see it, there’s just more personal anguish coming from this ruling. If you’ve got a thought, I’d love to hear it.

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