Texters Held Liable When Not Present
August 29, 2013

Court Holds Texters Liable For Accidents, Even If They Aren’t There

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

It’s now even more risky to text while driving in New Jersey. An appeals court has ruled the sender of a text message can be held liable for negligence if the recipient is involved in an accident, even if the sender is not on the road. A 2009 accident involving an 18-year old in a pickup and a couple riding on a motorcycle is at the center of this case, and its ruling has just been overturned by a panel of judges. Text message senders can now be held responsible for accidents if they had a "special reason" for knowing the recipient was driving at the time.

“When the sender knows that the text will reach the driver while operating a vehicle, the sender has a relationship to the public who use the roadways similar to that of a passenger physically present in the vehicle,” reads the court’s decision. "[T]he texter has a duty to users of the public roads to refrain from sending the driver a text at that time."

New Jersey law is already tough on cell phones and prohibits drivers from using any device that isn’t hands-free except when in an emergency.

The notion of holding the sender responsible for auto accidents began when David and Linda Kubert sued Shannon Colonna, claiming she was “electronically present” when her boyfriend crossed into another lane of traffic and hit them on their motorcycle. The Kuberts lost their legs in the accident and they initially brought charges against Kyle Best, the young man piloting the pickup truck.

Though he was initially sentenced to a $775 fine and community service, the Kubert's lawyer added Colonna to the suit. Best admitted he was texting with Colonna at the time of the accident, and cell records show he sent her a message at 5:48 on the evening of the near-fatal crash. She responded 31 seconds later, and several seconds after Best was calling 911. When he got off the phone, Colonna sent him two more texts.

The 2012 court dismissed the charges against Colonna because there wasn’t enough proof to show she knew Best was driving. The Kubert’s later settled with Best for $500,000, but appealed the dismissal of their charges against Colonna.

The panel of judges now say text senders can be held responsible, but also found there was insufficient evidence to show Colonna knew what her boyfriend was doing at the time of the accident. In a deposition before last year’s trial, Colonna told the court “I’m a young teenager. That’s what we do” when she explained she sends more than 100 text messages a day.

"In this appeal, we must also decide whether plaintiffs have shown sufficient evidence to defeat summary judgment in favor of the remote texter. We conclude they have not," reads the appeal’s ruling.

New York news station CBS 2 recorded the backlash from residents as they complained about the “outrageous” ruling. "It's their fault, who's driving and answering the text," said one angry New Jersey resident.

Governor Chris Christie agrees. In an interview with a local radio station, Christie said, "You have the obligation to keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and pay attention to what you're doing.”