Can a Person Be Held Liable for Distracting Another Driver? Not So Far, but Maybe.

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Police ticketed a man in Wichita, Kansas who covered his pickup truck in hundreds of Christmas lights, citing public safety concerns. The risk of traffic accidents due to the distraction caused by the truck, they said, made it a hazard. For an auto accident attorney and advocate for safe driving, this raises an interesting question: can someone hold a person liable for a distracted driving accident if that person, rather than being directly involved in the accident, was the cause of the distraction? A court case from earlier this year in New Jersey suggests that it is unlikely, although it is still a developing area of law.

David Hill of Wichita covered his pickup truck in 856 Christmas lights. The truck has reportedly become a conversation piece around town, and Hill claims that thousands of people have asked about it, walked up to see it on the street, or had their pictures taken with it. His goal, he says, is to raise awareness for a charity that he runs. Wichita police, however, are more concerned with the impact the truck has on other drivers.

Hill received a ticket at about midnight on Saturday, December 8. A city ordinance, according to a police spokesperson, only allows civilian vehicles to have white lights on the front of the vehicle and red and white lights on the back. Hill’s vehicle had blue and red lights on the front. The primary reason for the ordinance is to limit those colors to emergency vehicles, but police said that the risk of distracting other drivers also motivated the decision to issue Hill a ticket.

The risk of distracting a driver with bright colored lights is probably limited to enterprising individuals during the holiday season. Distractions from cell phone calls and text messages are unfortunately an everyday occurrence. A New Jersey couple injured in an accident caused by a distracted driver sued the woman who sent the text message to the driver. The plaintiffs were riding a motorcycle on September 21, 2009 when they were hit by an eighteen year-old driver who was reading a text message from his girlfriend. Both plaintiffs lost a leg as a result of the crash. The driver pleaded guilty to texting while driving, careless driving, and other offenses and paid a $760 fine. Their lawsuit sought to hold the driver’s girlfriend liable on the theory that she knew he was driving at the time, and that therefore she “aided and abetted” him.

The judge dismissed the case on summary judgment in May 2012, holding that the girlfriend did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiffs. In an oral judgment, the judge noted that a judgment for the plaintiffs could create a precedent in which any distraction could support a claim for liability. He stated that drivers have a wide range of duties to others on the road, while people who send text messages to someone who is driving have no specific duties in that regard. The person sending a text message, the judge said, should be able to assume that the driver will use good judgment.

Auto accident attorney Doug Horn is an advocate for safe driving in the greater Kansas City area. He represents the rights of people who have suffered injuries or lost loved ones due to the negligent or illegal conduct of others. Contact us today online or at (816) 795-7500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

Photo credit: ‘Christmas Bokeh Explosion’ by Lockheed on stock.xchng.