An issue of growing importance is car accident suits is whether the at-fault driver was talking on a cell phone or text messaging at or immediately before the time of the accident. A NHTSA study on car accident causes determined that 80% of all car accidents were due to driver inattention, with cell phone usage being the leading cause of distracted driving. Other studies have found that text messaging also has adverse effects on the ability to drive a car safely.
As experienced Chicago personal injury lawyers, one issue that we are always careful to investigate in any Illinois car accident suit is whether the defendant was talking on a cell phone or text messaging at the time of a car crash or immediately before. There are a couple of reasons why this is an important issue.
First, many people take work calls during off hours while they are driving. When someone is taking a work call while they are behind the wheel of a car, that may bring them within the scope of their employment. The law in Illinois is that an employer is liable for the negligent driving of employees while they are engaged in work-related activities. When we are able to establish that the defendant’s employer should be made a defendant in the case, that usually changes the complexion of the case because a large commercial insurance carrier will assume control of the defense. It also usually means that there is a substantially larger insurance policy available to compensate the car accident victims.
Second, even evidence of cell phone usage does not result in liability for the defendant’s employer, it may expose the defendant to liability for punitive damages. The law in Illinois is that punitive damages can be assessed against the defendant when the defendant acts in utter an conscious disregard for the safety others. With widespread media attention given to the dangers of cell phone use behind the wheel, most defendants will concede that they recognized that using a cell phone while driving was more likely to result in a car crash. For many judges, that is enough to submit the issue of punitive damages to the jury.
Once a judge determines that a defendant could potentially be held liable for punitive damages, this creates tremendous pressure on the insurance company to settle the case in order to protect their insureds assets. This often results in a faster and more favorable settlement for the car accident victim, which is something that we always try to accomplish for our clients.