More automobile accidents are leading to litigation among those distracted by smartphones and other technology while driving. It is now estimated that distractions are attributed to approximately 10% of fatal vehicle accidents. The Fifth Circuit Court, which hears cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, found that Apple could not be held liable for an accident involving a driver who was distracted by a phone notification. Is it possible that third-parties, such as device manufacturers, rideshare companies, or those transmitting text messages to drivers could be liable in these incidents?
Device Manufacturer Liability
This case of Meador v. Apple Inc. in the Fifth Circuit Court was the first ruling that involved a manufacturer of mobile devices. The judge acknowledged that no U.S. court had ruled that a manufacturer of a device could be liable for driver distraction. Texas law apparently clarifies that the driver is responsible for their own actions while driving. A New Jersey court did recently consider the adoption of such third-party liability. A Pennsylvania court also considered liability among third-parties in “appropriate circumstances.”
Ride-Share Company Liability
A woman in Detroit filed a claim against ride-share companies Uber and Lyft after an accident when she was a ride-share passenger. The lawsuit stated that the driver became distracted by the company's notification alerts while they traveled at approximately 70 miles per hour. The driver crashed into a semi-truck and significant injuries were incurred.
In determining the potential for third-party liability, it is necessary to assess the proximate cause for a vehicle accident. This determination requires “cause in fact” and “foreseeability.” Cause, in fact, refers to whether the defendant's actions or inactions were a significant contributor to the injuries. It is helpful to assess if the injuries could still have occurred if the defendant had not acted in the manner that they did. Foreseeability in this context relates to whether the third-party's involvement could be a reasonably foreseeable cause for injuries.
Employer Vicarious Liability
One example of when a third-party may be potentially liable for injuries resulting from an accident involves the concept of vicarious liability. The law generally allows employers to be held responsible for the actions of their agents or employees when they are acting within the scope of their duties to the employer. In some cases, employers have been deemed as liable for damages created by their employees if they were driving a company provided vehicle—even after working hours.
Facts Indicate Rise in Distracted Driving-Related Accidents
- An estimated nine people are killed each day as a result of a distracted driver
- In 2016, the number of such accidents rose by roughly 2% to 3,450 fatalities
- The estimated financial impact of distracted driving is nearly $46 billion
- Most U.S. states have implemented laws specifically addressing the problem of distracted driving
- 16 states prohibit those who are operating a vehicle from using any type of handheld devices
- Several states consider distracted driving to be a “secondary” offense. This means that law enforcement may not stop a driver solely based on their usage of a device or other distraction.