Last year, we published a blog article about an upcoming New Jersey court decision that could impose liability on the sender of a text message when the recipient of that text message is driving a car and causes an accident when reading the text. You can read the facts of the case here. In late August, an appeals court in New Jersey ruled on the issue, and the verdict is a bit puzzling. The court held that Shannon Colonna, the sender of the message in that particular case, was not liable, but explicitly stated that in other cases, a sender can be liable if he or she knows that the driver/recipient will read the message while driving. In the case before the court, because Colonna did not know that Kyle Best would read the message while he was driving, she was found to be not liable. The court held that “when a texter knows or has special reason to know that the intended recipient is driving and is likely to read the text message while driving, the texter has a duty to users of the public roads to refrain from sending the driver a text at that time”.
The court did state that “the sender should be able to assume that the recipient will read a text message only when it is safe and legal to do so…However, if the sender knows that the recipient is both driving and will read the text immediately, then the sender has taken a foreseeable risk in sending a text at that time. The sender has knowingly engaged in distracting conduct, and it is not unfair also to hold the sender responsible for the distraction.” Nevertheless, this opinion generates more questions than it answers. For example, what constitutes “knowledge” that a person will read the text while driving…a prior history of doing so? Being engaged in a text conversation with someone who seems to be distracted? The person saying in a previous text that he or she is driving (does “I’m on my way to New York” tell you the person is driving at that moment)? What if the text is alerting the driver to an emergency? What if you send an email instead of a text? What about calling someone whom you know might be driving? What if you just wanted to leave a voicemail? As is common in controversial decisions such as this, there is much room for debate and no clear answer.
Keep in mind that this case only applies in New Jersey and is not binding precedent in Pennsylvania, and that the plaintiff in the case may appeal the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, given how quickly texting laws have spread across the country, it would not be a surprise if a similar ruling occurred in Pennsylvania.
What do you think constitutes “knowledge” that a driver will read a text while driving? What do you think Pennsylvania law should be? Comment below and let us know.