New Jersey Court Says Remote Texters Can Be Liable for Distracted Driving

A New Jersey appeals court decided last year that “remote texters” can be held liable for injuries caused by distracted car accidents. Texting while driving and talking on a hand-held device while driving is prohibited under New Jersey law, but before this ruling there was no restriction on texting someone you know is behind the wheel.

The appeal came after a trial judge in Morristown dismissed a claim brought by two motorcyclists. The claim was against a teenager who texted her boyfriend back in 2009 while he was driving his pickup truck. The truck driver, allegedly distracted by the text message, then crashed his truck into the two motorcyclists in Mine Hill. Both motorcyclists lost a leg in the accident.

The driver of the pickup truck settled for $500,000, but a state superior court judge denied the aiding and abetting claim against the remote texter.

Attorney Stephen Weinstein represented the motorcyclists and argued the court should impose duty of care on those who the know the recipient is driving (and likely to read messages while driving).

The court rules that a remote texter can be held liable for injuries to third parties when the distracted driver causes an accident. However, the ruling is limited to when the sender knew the texts were being viewed by the recipient as he or she was driving.

In the car accident in question, the court determined that the remote texter did not have substantial knowledge that the drive would read the texts while behind the wheel.

“We conclude that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving. But we also conclude that plaintiffs have not presented sufficient evidence to prove that Colonna [the defendant] had such knowledge when she texted Best [the pickup truck driver] immediately before the accident,” the court explained in its opinion. “Even if a reasonable inference can be drawn that she sent messages requiring responses, the act of sending such messages, by itself, is not active encouragement that the recipient read the text and respond immediately, that is, while driving and in violation of the law.”

More than 171 billion text messages are sent in the U.S. every month, as of December 2012. Approximately 660,000 drivers use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving at any given daytime moment. When sending a text, a driver’s eyes are off the road for an average of 5 seconds—the length of time needed to cover the length of a football field while blindfolded if traveling at 55 miles per hour.

Approximately 10 percent of all drivers under age 20 were reported as distracted before getting into a fatal car accident. Drivers in their 20s make up more than one-quarter of distracted drivers in fatal crashes.