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NJ appellate court: Third-party texters can be held liable in crash

New Jersey has adopted what could reasonably be referred to as a rather unforgiving posture toward distracted driving over the last few years. To illustrate, the state has previously passed laws banning texting and talking on hand-held phones by all motorists, while just last year it passed a law which classifies distracted driving as a crime punishable by fines of up to $150,000 and up to 10 years in jail if it causes an accident that results in personal injuries.

The Garden State's reputation for cracking down on distracted driving was solidified that much more following a decision by a state appeals court earlier this week holding that those who knowingly send text message to drivers could be held liable in civil court if the driver ends up causing a car accident.

The case in question revolved around an accident that occurred back in September 2009. Here, a then-18-year-old boy was behind the wheel of his pickup truck traveling down a rural highway. However, rather than keeping his eyes on the road, he was engaging in a marathon text message session with his then 17-year-old girlfriend. Court records revealed that the pair had exchanged 62 text messages that day.

Exactly 17 seconds after his girlfriend sent him a text message, the boy was on the phone with 911 operators to report that he had been involved with a horrific head-on collision when his truck drifted over the center line and struck a married couple riding on a motorcycle.

In the aftermath of the car crash, the couple -- both of whom lost their legs -- filed a lawsuit against both teens, arguing that the 17-year-old girl was at least partially liable for the events that transpired.

The couple ultimately settled with the boy driving the truck, but lost their case against the girl. They proceed to file an appeal with the state appeals court, where they argued that a person who knowingly sends text messages to a driver involved in a crash could properly be considered as having been in the car and therefore treated as a passenger who willfully caused a distraction.

Here, the three-judge panel agreed with this theory and held the following:

"We hold that the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted," read the opinion.

Appling this logic to the case before them, the judges found that there was no evidence that the 17-year-old girl, who sent an average of 100 texts a day, had any idea that her boyfriend was driving at the time of the accident.

The decision has understandably ignited a media firestorm and sparked an ongoing debate among New Jersey motorists. It should be interesting to see how this decision comes into play in the state courts over the next few years.

What are your thoughts on this decision? Does responsibility rest solely with the driver?

Source: CNN, "Text a driver in New Jersey and you could see your day in court," Ben Brumfield and Chris Boyette, August 29, 2013

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