After a recent study revealed that a person who texted and drove simultaneously was 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident, many states (including Illinois) passed legislation prohibiting texting while driving.
With the new law in place, drivers who are found to be texting at the time of an accident are not only guilty of a crime, but are also usually tagged with most or all of the responsibility for the property damage, injuries, and deaths which result from the incident. As such, people who are guilty of texting while driving often find themselves paying out a settlement or court-ordered damages stemming from a personal injury lawsuit or a wrongful death lawsuit.
If a person can be found liable for an accident if he or she is texting, what about a person who sends texts to a driver?
A recent case in New Jersey focused on this specific question. In September of 2009, a New Jersey couple was riding on a motorcycle when they were struck by a car driven by an 18-year old man. Each victim later had to have one of their legs amputated because of the severity of their injuries. The teen pled guilty to distracted driving after it was discovered that he had been exchanging texts with a 20-year old woman.
The couple sued the teen in civil court over the accident, but then amended the lawsuit to include the young woman with whom he was texting. The plaintiffs claimed that the woman either knew or should have known that the teen was driving while she was texting him, and therefore should share liability in the accident.
But on Friday, May 25, 2012, a judge denied that claim and dismissed the 20-year old woman from the lawsuit. The judge claimed that people are subjected to all sorts of distractions while driving, and the decision whether or not to succumb to these diversions ultimately rests with the drivers, not the entities which provide the distractions. In other words, the teen could have chosen to ignore the texts until he was no longer behind the wheel. So in the end, he was responsible for choosing to read the texts while driving; and the woman was not liable for the accident for simply sending them.
Of course, this ruling from a New Jersey court has no legal bearing on any lawsuits filed in the state of Illinois (and it could be appealed). But it’s important because it’s the first decision of its kind in the U.S. pertaining to the liability of people who send texts to drivers who get into auto accidents. And while there’s no guarantee that a court in Illinois would reach the same conclusion, you can bet that this New Jersey court decision will be referenced if this issue ever arises in this state.
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