Bad Calls: Cell Phones and Texting While Driving

Cell phones and driving don't mix, and research proves it. Many studies, including some in the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal, report that talking on a cell phone while driving greatly increases the dangers of driving. Drivers using cell phones have longer danger recognition times and slower reaction times resulting in more car accidents than for drivers who are legally drunk.

Compounding the danger, more people than ever use them to conduct business while driving to talk and to receive and send documents, e-mail, and text messages. The risk of their hurting or killing someone has risen enormously, because people using cell phones has increased from 40 million in 1996 to over 276 million in 2009.

An emerging trend of verdicts and settlements against not only the drivers but also their employers who allow them to use cell phones while driving on work missions may be just what is needed to reform the bad judgment being used by cell phone owners. For example, in 2001, a Florida jury found a lumber company liable for twenty-one million dollars in damages after the company's salesperson injured someone in a collision while making a cell phone call between sales appointments.

In 2004, a Virginia attorney hit and killed a teenage girl while using her cell phone to do the firm's business. She never saw the girl and thought she had hit an animal. The law firm settled with the victim's family, a jury rendered a verdict against the individual attorney, and the attorney was disbarred. In 2007, International Paper settled an injury lawsuit for $5.2 million with an Atlanta woman who lost her arm after being rear ended by one of the company's employees driving 77 mph and using her company-issued phone.

Various ways exist to prove cell phone use at the time of a collision. I'll save that discussion for another day. The trend to hold both individuals and their companies liable can have a beneficial effect on creating more awareness of the dangers and a reformation of attitudes about the acceptability of using cell phones on the highway in this country. Legally speaking, two theories of liability can be used by injury victims to obtain compensation from the employers of cell phone users.

One is called by the Latin name "respondeat superior." When translated, that means that the employer, being in the superior position to the employee, is responsible for the actions of the employee conducting the employer's work. The other theory of liability is direct negligence, which is used when the employer expects or should know that the employee is using the cell phone to do work while driving or fails to ban its use while driving. Either way, litigation can exert pressure on these companies to implement strict cell phone policies to make all of us safer.

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