A New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled today that a woman who sent a text message to her boyfriend while he was driving cannot be held liable for the motor vehicle accident he subsequently caused, ABC News reports. A different ruling could have sparked a series of vicarious liability actions for “Facebook while driving” lawsuits.
The decision stemmed from a 2009 case in which Kyle Best was responding to a text message from his girlfriend, Shannon Colonna, while he was driving his pickup truck when he crashed into a motorcycle and severely injured David and Linda Kubert.
In an unprecedented legal twist, the plaintiff’s attorney amended the original complaint filed against Best to include Colonna as a defendant in the case, saying that she had been in frequent texting contact with Best throughout the day and ought to have known he was driving.
But Judge David Rand ruled today in Morris County Superior Court that Colonna could not be held responsible for Best’s distracted driving. “Drivers are bombarded with all forms of distractions,” Rand told the courtroom, according to The Star-Ledger, a newspaper in New Jersey. “I find that there was no aiding, abetting here in the legal sense. I find it is unreasonable to impose a duty upon the defendant in this case under these facts. Were I to extend this duty, in my judgment, any form of distraction could potentially serve as basis of a liability case.”
Had the judge reached the opposite result, this decision could have opened the floodgate for vicarious liability in “Facebook while driving” lawsuits against those who messaged others on Facebook knowing that they were driving. The Facebook Chat feature operates similar to a text message since Facebook’s mobile application notifies users when messages are received. Facebook’s mobile app also notifies users when they are tagged in photographs, invited to events, or receive “friend” requests, among other things. Twitter mobile applications send similar notifications. While the plaintiff was unsuccessful in this “texting while driving” lawsuit, it may only be a matter of time until we see a lawsuit seeking vicarious liability over Facebook or Twitter messages.