May 22, 2012 at 6:06 AM ET
Could you be blamed for a car crash because you sent a text message?
A New Jersey judge will decide later this week if the sender of a text message might be partially liable for a horrific auto accident that occurred because the driver was reading that message on his cell phone and drifted into oncoming traffic.
With nearly half a million U.S. drivers injured in distracted driving-related accidents every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the judge’s decision could have wide-ranging impact in both the legal and digital realms.
While it might seem absurd to blame someone who isn't even in the car -- or anywhere near it -- for causing an accident, some legal experts say the plaintiff is on firmer ground than you might think.
Skippy Weinstein, a Morristown-based lawyer, is using similar logic to press the case he filed on behalf of David and Linda Kuber. Both Kubers lost their legs during a 2009 crash in Mine Hill, N.J., after 19-year-old Kyle Best sideswiped their car when driving while texting. Weinstein said Shannon Colonna, who was texting with Best, should also be held responsible for the Kubers’ injuries.
"She was not physically in the vehicle but she was electronically present," Weinstein told msnbc.com. "She and he were assisting each other in a violation of the law."
That word "assisting" is at the crux of Weinstein's novel legal argument.
Most readers will be familiar with the notion of "aiding and abetting" a criminal act and the guilt it brings: the man who knowingly holds the door for the gang is just likely to be convicted of bank robbery as the safe cracker.
More recently, this notion of aiding and abetting has been extended to civil liability cases, too, creating a basis for what's sometimes called "secondary" or "vicarious" liability. For the past two decades, most civil aiding and abetting cases have been limited to investment and securities fraud: An aggrieved investor might not only sue Bernie Madoff for stealing his money, for example, but also go after a third-party broker who repeatedly executed trades for Madoff. Even if the trader wasn't profiting from the scheme or part of a "joint enterprise,“ a court might find the trader provided assistance to Madoff, and should have known that someone was likely be injured by his actions.
The aiding and abetting argument in injuries that give rise to lawsuits, known as "torts," is only beginning to find its way into other kinds of civil cases.
There's a simple three-pronged test to prove someone is partly to blame for causing an injury by aiding and abetting someone else. It is set out in the Restatement of Torts published by the American Law Institute, which guides most civil courtrooms:
1) The party the defendant assists must do a wrongful act;
2) The party must be generally aware of his or her role in the illegal or "tortuous" act;
3) The party must "substantially assist" in the principal violation.
Weinstein think his argument is easy to make. The driver violated the law by texting while driving. Colonna, the text sender, should have known that Best was driving home from work and had to know texting while driving was a violation, he said. Therefore, it's hard to argue that a text sender isn't substantially assisting in the creation of a text message conversation that violates New Jersey's driving laws.
"That very comfortably satisfies the third prong of the legal test," he said.
Colonna’s lawyer, Joseph McGlone, doesn't think the argument has any merit, and has asked Morris County Superior Court Judge David Rand to dismiss the case. Rand is scheduled to rule this week on McGlone’s motion to dismiss the case.
The sender of a text message has no way to control or predict when the recipient will read it, McGlone argues.
"The sender of the text has the right to assume the recipient will read it at a safe time,” McGlone told the local Daily Record newspaper. “It’s not fair. It’s not reasonable. Shannon Colonna has no way to control when Kyle Best is going to read that message."
He added that there is no precedent for heaping liability on a person on the other side of a text message conversation that causes injury.
Of course, there's no precedent for a lot of legal areas in the Digital Age. In situations like this, judges usually turn to analogies. In driving injury cases, the judge has a bushel full to choose from.
For starters, it's hard to tag liability on anyone who isn't holding the steering wheel of the car while an accident occurs. Lawyers around the nation have repeatedly tried and failed to make passengers partly responsible for accidents caused by drunken drivers when passengers knowingly get into a car with an intoxicated driver.
There are exceptions, however. A South Carolina court has said a passenger could be judged a "proximate cause" of an injury if the driver and passenger were in some kind of "joint enterprise," such as the passenger steering the car while the driver presses the gas pedal.
Passengers who have directly encouraged drivers to break the law -- by urging them to speed excessively or to drive in the oncoming lane as part of a game, for example -- have also been found liable, Weinstein says.
But to find a passenger liable, the South Carolina court said, "The passenger must have an equal right to control the direction and management of the vehicle." It seems hard to argue that a text message sender has equal ability to control the vehicle as the driver does.
But there are plenty of other situations where someone other than the driver has to pay after an injury accident, an extension of liability called “imputed negligence.” The most common is when the driver is "an agent" of someone else -- when a pizza delivery man driving for work causes an accident, his employer is liable. Parents are often liable for accidents their children cause if they kids are directly under their care.
There's also concept called "negligent entrustment": if you knowingly let an unlicensed driver take your auto out for a spin, you will probably be liable for an accident he or she causes.
Neither of those cases fit this situation well, however. So Weinstein has settled on a simpler analogy.
"If she was in the vehicle and put her hands over his eyes so he couldn't see, she would be liable," he said. "(Texting with him) is as if she put her hands over his eyes."
Is texting the digital equivalent of willfully rendering someone blind? To even make that argument, and to press on with the aiding and abetting claim, Weinstein has to persuade the judge that Colonna knew that Best was texting while driving. Colonna's lawyers are contesting that point, but Weinstein says the pattern of texts between boyfriend and girlfriend make clear that she must have known he was on his way home from work.
But even if he fails on that argument, it's easy to imagine other lawsuits where evidence of knowledge by the sender could be hard to deny. A driver might directly text, "Hey, I'm driving home," for example.
That would make a big difference in a case like this, said Robert Mitchell, a Utah-based lawyer and author of a recent article on aiding and abetting claims.
"If there is conclusive evidence that the person sending the text messages to the driver knew the driver was texting while driving, we see no reason why a claim for aiding and abetting the driver’s negligent or reckless conduct could not be made. The case is probably weaker if there is no evidence of actual knowledge, but only evidence of ‘constructive knowledge,’" said Mitchell, referring to a concept that the sender "should have known" the recipient was driving. "Courts disagree over whether constructive knowledge is sufficient to give rise to aiding and abetting liability."
Courts have found that the contribution by this third party in aiding and abetting cases can't be slight – it must be “significant.” For example, giving directions to the bank robber probably wouldn’t be substantial enough to get you prosecuted, but telling him what time security guard shifts change could be. And, as with most civil liability cases, the harm caused by the action doesn't have to be intentional.
Mitchell said this is the critical phrase in the American Law Institute's guidelines.
"If the encouragement or assistance is a substantial factor in causing the resulting tort, the one giving it is himself a tortfeasor and is responsible for the consequences of the other’s act. This is true both when the act done is (intentional) and when it is merely (negligent)," Mitchell wrote in his review, quoting the guidelines with added parenthesis. In fact, liability exists even if the third-party has no idea he or she is doing something illegal or negligent.
So in Mitchell’s view, it's a relatively easy to argue that the texter "substantially assisted" the driver in causing the accident.
"The third prong, substantial assistance, would be an easier hurdle to clear (than knowledge) since sending somebody a text message while driving distracts the driver and that distraction may ultimately cause the accident," he said. "Of course defenses may include superseding or intervening causes to the underlying tort (the first prong), like bad weather, poor road conditions or visibility, avoiding someone or something on the road."
Not all experts agree, however. Maryland-based lawyer Bradley Shear, an expert in digital law, openly fretted about how far liability might extend if Weinstein is successful in his novel legal argument.
"What if someone is hopping on a boat, and they look down at a text, slip and drown? What if a doctor gets a text before a surgery that upsets him and he makes a mistake? Is the sender responsible?" he said. "If you start going down that route where are you going to draw the line?"
Mark Rasch, for head of the Justice Department’s Computer Crimes Unit, said he thinks the case will boil down simply into this question: Can anyone really prove that the sender of the text, Colonna, knew that Best would read it while driving? Absent such proof, there is no case, he says.
But he was concerned with the larger issue of extending liability through digital means.
“The real question here is, do we as a society want to impose a duty on the non-driving texter for accidents that happen when a recipient is driving?” he said. “For now, it seems a reasonable place to draw the line at this: The person driving has a duty not to text. And the person on other end of line has no duty unless there are special circumstances.”
One special circumstance he envisioned: A boss or other person in a position of power who received a message from an employee saying, “I can’t text, I’m driving,” but continued to send demanding texts with an implied threat if they weren’t answered quickly.
“The person in the position of authority might have liability then,” said Rasch, now a cybersecurity consultant with Virginia-based CSC Inc.
Complicating matters, juries can apportion liability, and theoretically could find a driver 90 percent responsible and the sender of a text 10 percent responsible. Damages can be similarly apportioned, although the realities of collections means the party with the deepest pockets usually pays the most in damages.
It’s also possible that Congress or state legislatures might create a chain of liability, as states have done with dram shop laws, which make bars liable for injuries and damages caused by patron who are served after they’re drunk.
For his part, Weinstein demurs when asked if he's trying to set an important legal precedent or make law. He's just trying to win a case for his client, he said.
"The defense ... wants to make this into a cause celebre, but this is not complicated," he said. "A jury may find I'm wrong and thrown me out on my duff. ... All I'm saying is don't (text) while driving, and don't assist someone else in texting while driving."
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