Just about everyone knows that sending texts while driving is an incredibly bad idea, but a New Jersey court has just decided that not only drivers should be held liable for texting-related accidents. According to a just-released opinion from a New Jersey court of appeals, someone who sends a text message to another person can be held liable for a texting-related accident so long as the sender was aware that the message's recipient was behind the wheel.
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.
The court's opinion came out of an earlier texting while driving case: a teenager driving and texting crossed the center line of the road he was on and severely injured a married couple on a motorcycle. The injured couple had already settled with the driver who hit them, but they also sought to charge the girl who sent the driver a message with negligence, saying that she knew she was texting someone who was driving and thus knew she was engaging in distracting and unsafe behavior.
However, in this case, the plaintiffs weren't able to prove that the girl sending the text to her boyfriend actually knew he was driving, so she isn't being charged. However, the court found the argument intriguing enough that it will consider the responsibility of the sender in text message accident cases going forward:
We affirm the trial court's order dismissing plaintiffs' complaint against the sender of the text messages, but we do not adopt the trial court's reasoning that a remote texter does not have a legal duty to avoid sending text messages to one who is driving.
So while the defendant managed to escape prosecution, future texters in New Jersey might not be so lucky. That said, it looks like the court's opinion is worded such that this shouldn't place a burden on innocent texters — a remote sender only has a "limited duty" to those sharing the road with drivers using their phones. "One should not be held liable for sending a wireless transmission simply because some recipient might use his cell phone unlawfully and become distracted while driving," the court determined. Additionally, this isn't a formal law, but more an admission that New Jersey will consider future prosecution of people who sent texts to someone who caused an accident. Still, regardless of the legal implications, it's definitely something worth considering when you're firing off messages to your friends — if you know they're behind the wheel, it might be smart to just send them later.