In Vega v. Crane, et al., a hot-off-the-presses decision, one of New York's appellate courts tackled a fascinating - and troubling - question:

Can a third party, who texts someone they know is driving, be held legally responsible for causing a car accident that was caused by distracted driving?

The Facts of Vega v. Crane

On a dark and rainy night, both the plaintiff and Crane (who died in the accident) were driving their respective vehicles toward each other on opposite sides of the double yellow line. At that time, Crane was trading text messages with his girlfriend while heading home from work and was exchanging text messages with his girlfriend (and co-defendant), Taylor Cratsley.

According to the New York State Trooper's accident reconstruction report, despite the fact that Crane's vehicle went across the double yellow line, since there was no indication that Crane even tried to take any evasive maneuvers to avoid the impact, such as braking or swerving (which, unlike Crane, Vega had apparently done), the report suggested that Crane had likely been driving distracted, and that "[Crane's] cellular phone activity "may have been the source of this distraction."

What the Vega Court Did

In affirming the trial court's decision that dismissed the liability action against girlfriend Cratsley, the appellate court treaded a fine line, noting that while a passenger in a car can be held liable for distracting the driver, such as where they "suddenly and unnecessarily calls out" to the driver in heavy traffic, thus causing the driver to crash into the car of a third person, the sender of text messages, who is not present in the vehicle, cannot be held liable for causing the accident, stating:

"Unlike the passenger, the remote sender is not present in the vehicle and thus "lacks the first-hand knowledge of the circumstances attendant to the driver's operation of the vehicle that a passenger possesses and has even less ability to control the actions of the driver" (Kubert v Best, 432 NJ Super 495, 521, 75 A3d 1214, 1230 [Super Ct, App Div 2013] [Espinosa, J., concurring]). The driver cannot prevent the passenger, who is actually present inside the vehicle, from creating a distraction by suddenly and unnecessarily calling out at an imprudent moment. The same driver, on the other hand, has complete control over whether to allow the conduct of the remote sender to create a distraction. Although the remote sender has the ability to refrain from sending the driver a text message, he or she is powerless to compel the driver to read such a text message at an imprudent moment, and has no duty to prevent the driver from doing so."

The Takeaways

It is no great secret why the plaintiff tried to sue Crane's girlfriend; given the severity of this accident, and the injuries involved, the plaintiffs wanted to secure as much insurance coverage, from as many sources as possible, to recompense them for their injuries. That being said, the Court - appropriately in my view - tried to avoid going down a slippery slope of nearly limitless liablity for accidents. After all, if third parties who weren't at the accident scene can be held liable, where would the line for cutting of potential liability lie?

Make no mistake, the consequences of a different holding would be significant, for, at a minimum, it would cause insurance premiums to rise significantly to offset policyholders' potential exposure to claims when they aren't even at an accident scene.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer
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