NJ Appellate Court rules the sender of a text can be liable if the recipient reads their message while driving

A panel of judges of the Superior Court in NJ’s Appellate Division has issued a ruling saying that if you send a message to someone who reads that message while they’re driving you can be held liable if they crash as a result of reading the message.

The panel was ruling on an appeal to a case I pointed out here at HoodaThunk? back in May of 2012. In that case, a couple that was riding their motorcycle in NJ was struck and seriously injured by a driver who was reading a text message his girlfriend sent him. The couple sued the girlfriend, arguing that she “should have known” that her boyfriend was driving and should be considered liable for his accident. The judge in that case ruled against that saying that her sending a text did not amount to an “electronic presence” in the car, as the couple’s lawyer argued. The couple obviously appealed that decision but fared no better. Or, rather, they fared no better – their idea apparently has merit:

A panel of judges on the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division found that the sender would be liable if the person had a “special reason” to know the recipient was driving and would read the messages, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"When the sender knows that the text will reach the driver while operating a vehicle, the sender has a relationship to the public who use the roadways similar to that of a passenger physically present in the vehicle," the court wrote.

“[T]he texter has a duty to users of the public roads to refrain from sending the driver a text at that time.”

My position on this hasn’t changed since last year: the decision to divert one’s attention to one’s cell phone to read and respond to a text message is one made by the recipient, not the sender, of the message. The sender isn’t there; they have no idea when or whether a person will read the message and they have absolutely no control over the timing of such an act. As I mentioned in my post last year, text messages are not as instantaneous as some people believe. There can be rather severe lags in the delivery time, up to and including hours in certain circumstances. If one sends a message to a person and, in the intervening lag time, that person gets in a car and drives off, the sender would have no way of keeping the recipient from reading the message while he’s driving.

Besides which, the responsibility to pay attention to one’s driving is the driver’s, not a passenger, nor some distant friend. The driver of the car in this case made the wrong move with tragic consequences for a couple who minding their own business. He is at fault and he is to blame. I applaud their holding him liable in court – and I think he should be found guilty of the crime and suffer the penalty thereof – but this attempt to ensnare others in their net is just not reasonable. In this case, they didn’t succeed but the NJ Appellate Court has now opened the door for more suits of this type. I disagree with their line of thought and think they should be overturned.