Everyone knows at this point that texting while driving is bad. There has been much media attention and awareness campaigning dedicated to the cause, which certainly seems necessary given that 34 percent of teens have copped to texting while driving, and texting behind the wheel makes a crash 23 times (!) more likely. Less discussed has been the culpability of the person who is engaging in a text conversation with the driver. But three New Jersey judges came down with a somewhat surprising ruling this week, claiming that you might be “legally liable” for a crash if you’re the one who’s been texting the driver who causes the accident.
The New Jersey State Appeals court took the stance in a case involving a couple injured in 2009 when they were hit by a truck driven by a 18-year-old, who had been texting furiously (62 texts back-and-forth that day) with his 17-year-old girlfriend. The couple had already agreed to a settlement with the driver, but was now suing the girlfriend, who had texted him “shortly before the crash.” In this particular case, the New Jersey jurors didn’t find the girlfriend liable, as it had been determined she didn’t know her boyfriend had been driving, but, according to CNN, the court “accepted the general argument that a texter may bear some legal responsibility if they know the other party is 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,” they wrote in the ruling.
So while criminal laws haven’t changed, it is possible that in the future a civil lawsuit could successfully be levied against someone who’s proven to have knowingly texted with a driver who causes an accident.
“One of the great arguments my colleague made. . . was that when you text—you’re the texter—you are electronically in that car,” New Jersey attorney Marc Saperstein said.
Of course, there are still a lot of questions here. How exactly are they going to be able to prove someone was fully aware the person they’re texting was driving (barring explicit car-referencing texts)? Will this lead more teens to Snapchat their friends due to the ephemerality of the messages? And, not to be glib, but, based on that attorney’s logic, does that mean Robin Thicke could be liable if someone gets into an accident while dancing to “Blurred Lines” in their car?