Companies Liable for Drivers Texting Behind Wheel

Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of work-related deaths and account for 24 percent of all fatal occupational injuries. On-the-job crashes are costly to employers, incurring costs of more than $24,500 per property damage crash and $150,000 per injury crash. Sometimes, they are even more costly.

The Ragsdale family knows this too well. On Jan. 25, 2010, Mindy Ragsdale’s vehicle was stopped on a rural two-lane highway, waiting for an opening to turn left. Despite a quarter-mile clear view, a cable company vehicle rear-ended Ragsdale’s car at full speed. The colliding vehicle still had its cruise control engaged. Mindy and her grandmother, Peggye Woodson, were killed on impact.

Ragsdale was survived by her husband and two young children. Woodson’s husband, having lost his caregiver, moved into a nursing home.

The driver had been texting prior to the crash.

The National Safety Council estimates that in 2010, at least “24% of crashes involved drivers using cell phones, including 1.1 million crashes where drivers were talking on cell phones, and a minimum of 160,000 crashes during which drivers were texting.”

A recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) survey found that drivers cite work-related communications as a reason to use phones while driving.

Employers can be, and have been, held liable for driver behaviors that are legal under current federal or state laws. This is regardless of if the employee was on or off the clock, the employer has been found liable.

  • A jury found that a driver and the corporation that owned the vehicle were liable for $21.6 million because testimony revealed the driver may have been talking with her husband on a cell phone at the time of the fatal crash.
  • An off-duty police officer was texting moments before a fatal crash, and, because he was driving a police cruiser, his employer was held liable for $4 million.
  • An employee was involved in a fatal crash while making “cold calls” as he drove to a non-business-related event on a Saturday night. The firm did not own the phone or the vehicle, but the plaintiff claimed that the company was liable because it encouraged employees to use their “car phones” and lacked a policy governing safe cell phone use. His firm settled the lawsuit for $500,000.

According to Todd Clement, an Attorney specializing in trucking and commercial vehicle cases involving catastrophic injuries and death, juries award large verdicts when they believe that doing so will support public safety.

While an employer can never be 100% protected from a lawsuit, there are tools that can help mitigate the risks, including implementing a total ban policy, educated and training drivers, monitoring compliance, and enforced the policy. Incorporating a GPS tracking device can help. GPS tracking solutions monitor driver behaviors and can notify the fleet manager of erratic or hard driving. Using a GPS tracking device that relays dispatching and routing information straight to the unit reduces the need to accept or make calls. Reports can help monitor and enforce a corporate safe driving policy.

In the case of the cable company truck involved in the fatal crash described earlier, while preparing for the legal case, it was discovered that the driver habitually used a cell phone and texted while on the job.

For the families of Mindy Ragsdale and Peggye Woodson, no text the cable company driver sent was more important than driving.

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