(Source: Bekah Walker)
If it is proven you knew the subject was driving, you can be taken to court by victims for damages

In an era where some feel personal responsibility is being thrown to the wayside, an East Coast court has opened a whole new can of worms in the distracted driving debate, arguing that if you text someone -- even if you are not driving -- you may be held responsible for that person's crimes.

I. Court: Text a Driver in a Crash, and you Could Face Penalties

In a ruling [PDF] that many New Jersey residents feel is overstretching and out-of-touch, a three-judge panel at the Superior Court of New Jersey's Appellate Division ruled that in some cases you can be held civilly liable under distracted driving statutes if the person you text commits a vehicular crime, i.e. hitting someone or damaging property.

The court writes that in cases where a person has a "special reason" to know they're driving:

[T]he texter has a duty to users of the public roads to refrain from sending the driver a text at that time.

When the sender knows that the text will reach the driver while operating a vehicle, the sender has a relationship to the public who use the roadways similar to that of a passenger physically present in the vehicle.

Josh Rose
Josh Rose -- don't text any drivers or you might wind up paying big. [Image Source: Sony]

Based on this ruling it appears that the court's opinion indicates that if you text someone and there's no evidence that you knew they were driving, you won't be held liable.  But if, for example, police get ahold of a transcript of your chat and it indicates that the driver mentioned they were on the road, you may be held civilly liable.

II. New Laws Could Introduce Prison Time for Texting Drivers

What's more, it's important to consider that the ruling could both extend to other types of distracted driving and even lead to potential criminal penalties, such as time in prison.

Current distracted driving efforts largely started as campaigns to increase civil liability.  As these efforts received public support, states began to roll out criminal penalties as well; for instance the State of New Jersey in 2012 passed a law that equated causing an injury while texting to driving while greatly intoxicated (some studies have shown that driving while texting is more dangerous than driving drunk).  The new law allows the state to fine texting drivers up to $150,000 USD and put them in prison for up to 10 years.

Future laws could send those who text drivers to prison. [Image Source: Getty Images]

Eventually similar -- but likely lesser punishments -- could creep into state criminal codes if you text a driver.  Such a possibility may so extraordinary, but remember the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world (officially, at least).

In New Jersey a pending law proposed by state Sen. James Holzapfel (R) would make it legal for a police officer to seize your phone without warrant and order you to unlock it in criminal and traffic investigations.  While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is fighting the law, some fear it may pass.

Given the appeal's court's ruling, this could spell trouble not only for drivers, but for those not even in the car as well.  For example, if a police seizure of your chat history shows you knew you were texting a driver who caused a deadly accident, you might find yourself sent to prison for 2 or 3 years.

Likewise many distracted driving statutes are now covering other things -- people talking to the driver, food in the car, etc.  Cities in Ohio and South Dakota have passed ordinances against eating or drinking on the road.  While officers insist they won't ticket you for merely taking a bite of food if you're driving safely, they have significant leeway to ratchet up your ticket if you get in an accident while eating.

Distracted eating
Some cities already outlaw "distracted eating".  If a passenger distracts a driver with appetizing food smells, should they faces hundreds of thousands in fines if the driver crashes?
[Image Source: SFAppeal]

Similar provisions could apply eventually to passengers eating in the car.  (e.g. A city passes a statute prohibiting passengers from distracting a hungry driver by eating food, a person gets in a crash and a cop tickets their passenger as well because they have a burger and fries in their lap.)

III. Couple in the Case Scored $500,000 USD from Driver, but Lose Suit Against His Texting GF

The case under dispute in New Jersey is a pretty sad story.  It involves husband and wife David and Linda Kubert who were out on a motorcycle ride in Morris County when an 18-year-old motorist driving a pickup truck veered over the line while texting, striking the couple.

Truck v. Motorcycle
The couple injured were riding their motorcycle when the texter's truck crossed the center line.
[Image Source: The Express Times]

The motorist -- Kyle Best -- stopped, but the damage was already done.  Both the husband and wife suffered serious lower body injuries; both lost legs.

Stephen "Skippy" Weinstein, a top local attorney, represented the couple in court.  He helped them sue Mr. Best, who eventually settled for $500,000 USD.  But more surprisingly he also sued Mr. Best's girlfriend, Shannon Colonna, who was the person who sent him the fateful text that cops believed triggered the lane departure, arguing in court that her texts made it as if she had an electronic presence in the car and was there distracting the driver.

Court records showed that Ms. Colonna -- 17 at the time -- sent her boyfriend 62 texts per day on average, and sent approximately 100 texts total daily to her friends.  The contents of the couple's texts -- including the messages on the day of the accident -- were sealed by the courts.  In a deposition she called the attorney's pursuit of whether she "knew" that Mr. Best was driving "weird".  Asked why she texted in her deposition she commented, "I'm a young teenager. That's what we do."

Texting victims
The Kuberts both lost a leg in the crash. [Image Source:]

A state civil court found her not guilty, as the couple provided insufficient evidence and the judge was unsure if the state statute could be extended to a person not in the car.  The Kuberts and their attorney appealed, and the state appeals court heard the case.

Ultimately the appeals court clarified that people texting drivers could be held to blame.  But it still let the teenage girl off the hook, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show she knew Mr. Best was driving at the time.  The court wrote:
In this appeal, we must also decide whether plaintiffs have shown sufficient evidence to defeat summary judgment in favor of the remote texter. We conclude they have not.

That ruling left the Kuberts dissatisfied; they feel that the teen texting the driver was as much to blame as the driver and they should both face serious life changing punishments, given how the pair's actions changed the injured couple's lives.

IV.  Governor Christie: Court Goofed

The case is generating a backlash.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) -- never one to avoid speaking his mind -- told local radio station New Jersey 101.5 that while justice appeared served in the suit against the driver, the suit against his girlfriend who was not in the car was ridiculous.  He attacked the court ruling saying the responsibility not to drive recklessly is the driver's and no one else's.

He comments, "You have the obligation to keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and pay attention to what you're doing."

The ruling made NJ Governor Chris Christie sick to his stomach. [Image Source: Getty Images]
CNN affiliate WPIX interviewed a number of residents and they seemed to feel the same, arguing that the court's opinion was dangerous and made no sense.  Joe Applegate told the station, "That's completely absurd, just because [the texter] know you're driving doesn't mean, it really doesn't mean they know [the driver is] looking at it."

Louise McKellip comments, "Even talking to the driver can distract them, so they are going to arrest for someone who simply talked to someone who is driving?"

But like it or not, that's the precedent in the state of New Jersey for now, until a higher court overrules the ruling.  Since the plaintiffs lost the case, that case won't see a federal appeal, so it might be some time before the decision could be potentially overturned with another case.  Thus for now penalties for texting a driver becomes the latest way in which the police state is looking to help protect us from ourselves.

Sources: Superior Court of NJ's Appellate Division, CNN, Fox News

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