An increasing number of states and local communities prohibit cell phone use while driving, imposing fines and other penalties on offending drivers. But did you know that in addition to breaking the law, using a cell phone while driving might also expose you to a lawsuit if you're involved in a car accident? Worse yet, you could be on the hook if your employees or kids cause an auto accident while using the phone.
(Learn more about state laws regulating cell phone use and texting while driving.)
When one driver sues another for damage resulting from a car accident, the person bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff ) generally has to prove that the other driver (the defendant) caused the accident through negligent (careless) driving. In some recent cases, plaintiffs have argued—and courts have agreed—that a driver using a cell phone immediately before or at the time of an accident was negligent.
Note that liability for cell phone use works both ways. Defendants have successfully argued that injured plaintiffs shared legal blame for an accident because the plaintiffs were using a phone while driving. This comparative or contributory negligence defense can reduce the plaintiff's recovery or prevent the plaintiff from receiving any compensation (damages) for their injuries.
(Learn more about the comparative or contributory negligence rules in your state.)
Under a legal rule called "respondeat superior" (meaning "let the superior answer"), an employer can be held legally responsible for an employee's negligent driving. If an employee's phone-distracted driving causes an accident while the employee is driving on their employer's business, the employer can almost certainly expect a legal claim.
The injured person will sue both the employer and the employee, but the real target is the employer. Why? Because the employer typically has more money—"deeper pockets," as lawyers say—to pay a settlement or lawsuit judgment. This legal liability is why growing numbers of employers prohibit employees from using any cell phone or other electronic device (whether personal or work-issued) while driving.
There's a clear connection between teen auto accidents and distracted driving, including cell phone use. Many states impose special restrictions on teen or novice drivers using cell phones while driving.
Plaintiffs have also claimed that parents should be held legally responsible for accidents their kids cause while driving and using a cell phone. In some cases, plaintiffs have argued that parents should be held vicariously liable for a child's negligent driving. Other times, injured parties claim that parents themselves negligently entrusted their child with a car and a cell phone.
Auto insurance companies are paying close attention to the link between phone use and car accidents. Many insurance company websites warn of the dangers of distracted driving.
If you're at fault for a car accident caused by cell phone use, or are ticketed for talking or texting while driving, you're likely to see your insurance premium go up. Repeated accident claims caused by cell phone use might prompt your auto insurer to cancel or refuse to renew your coverage. The best way to avoid insurance problems is to avoid distracted driving altogether.
If you were hurt by a distracted driver who was using a cell phone or other device, think about contacting an experienced car accident lawyer. Here's how you can find an attorney in your area who's right for you and your case.