The next time syndicators are looking for a no-nonsense, common sense judge for the next big court show, they might be making a trip to visit a state superior court judge in New Jersey.
That’s after a New Jersey judge dismissed a portion of a lawsuit that targeted the sender of a text message received by someone who is accused of causing a devastating traffic accident.
The two victims, both of whom were riding motorcycles and each of whom ended up losing a leg after they were struck by a car, filed suit against not only the driver but also the driver’s girlfriend. The driver and his girlfriend were allegedly sending text messages back and forth while he driving.
It was an absurd idea because it put an unfair legal burden on people who who have absolutely no control over someone else’s actions and no way of knowing what those actions are.
But the defendants’ lawyer claimed she should have known he was driving and was “electronically present” in the accident, a claim which the judge, fortunately, rejected.
Let’s think of it this way: you’re in the office and you need to get in touch with a co-worker to ask a simple question. So you text him. He responds quickly enough and you ask one follow-up question. As he’s texting a reply, he’s in a car accident.
How are you to blame for that? Seriously, even if you add to the text message something along the lines of, “Don’t text back if you’re driving,” and I know people who actually do this, you can’t control whether the person you’re chatting with listens to this sage advice.
Beyond that, you have no way of knowing if he’s behind the wheel to begin with. Even if you know that he was headed somewhere, you can’t possibly know whether he’s driving or whether he might have pulled off the road at, say, a gas station. Or a drive-thru restaurant. Or a grocery store. And even if he is behind the wheel, he might be safely stopped at a red light in which case texting isn’t nearly as dangerous (though in some locations it may still be illegal).
The point is, you can’t control what the driver’s doing any more than the victim he hits because he isn’t paying attention can.
And that’s the real key here. No matter who’s texting with him, it’s ultimately the driver who’s operating an automobile. If he can’t do it responsibly because he’s distracted by a phone, then the only acceptable action is to turn the phone off.
Beyond that, consider how many people or businesses may text you in an average day. Your bank might text you to let you know an account balance has dropped below a pre-determined amount. A utility may text you to tell you that your bill is ready or that a payment has been credited. Local news agencies might text you with breaking news alerts that you would have had to sign up for. Or you might even receive a text from your child’s school to alert you to a problem involving your little one.
Are all of them going to be held liable if you get in a crash because the recipient fails to pay attention to what he’s actually doing when the alert happens to arrive?
It’s common sense to blame the driver of a car who injures someone because he allowed himself to be distracted. But that’s as far as common sense should be able to extend blame.