June 2016 Distracted Driving Update
We all know the dangers of distracted driving. Talking while driving and texting while driving are dangerous activities and are illegal in many states. If someone causes a car crash because they are texting while driving there can be no debate that they should face liability for their actions. So if you answer or respond to a text while driving, you are on the hook but what about the person who sent you that text? Should they share in the blame for the crash? Well, in an apparent case of first impression, the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas has ruled that if the text sender knows, or has reason to know, that the recipient of their text is driving and will view the text, the sender might face liability along with the driver that caused the crash.
The underlying facts of the case of Gallatin v. Garguilo were tragic as it involved a fatal accident where the defendant struck the plaintiff’s motorcycle from behind. At the time of the crash, it was alleged that the defendant was reading or responding to a text message from one of two men and that is why she failed to see the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s estate sued the driver and both the men who were alleged to have sent the driver texts. Counsel for the two alleged texters filed preliminary objections but in a March 9, 2016 Order Judge Hodge overruled the objections and ordered the case to proceed through discovery. The Court noted that it was unaware of any Pennsylvania precedent on point but did refer to a recent New Jersey case with similar facts as illustrative.
The decision noted that holding the text sender liable will require a high standard of proof as it must be shown that they had knowledge their text would definitely distract another driver. As the decision was issued on pre-discovery preliminary objections it remains to be seen whether discovery will reveal evidence that allows this standard can be met in this specific case. However, if you end up with an injured plaintiff where distracted driving appears to have played a role in the crash, you would be wise to consider whether the person on the other end of the message string needs to be considered as a viable defendant as well as the driver.