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Could sending a text to a driver result in a wrongful death suit?

In Pennsylvania, state law makes texting while driving a primary offense. However, a local lawsuit brought by the estate of a deceased motorcyclist has prompted discussion of whether additional measures need to be taken to discourage this type of negligent driving behavior.

Specifically, a new texting penalty may be on the horizon, similar to the dram shop laws in some states that may hold a business owner or host responsible for serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest. By analogy, the sender of a text who knows the recipient is driving might also face some liability if the distraction causes a crash.

The lawsuit involves a distracted driver who crashed into a motorcycle while reading texts on her cellphone. On the criminal side, the driver served 60 days in jail after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. On the civil side, the driver is being sued by the deceased’s estate. Yet the driver is not the only named defendant: the senders of the texts were also named. The court recently issued a preliminary ruling, authorizing the plaintiff to proceed with the lawsuit against all of the parties.

Is texting behind the wheel the new drunk driving? From a civil jury’s perspective, this type of behavior certainly may raise a strong presumption of negligence. A wrongful death caused by a driver distracted by his or her cellphone activities might also implicate criminal charges, such as manslaughter.

As a law firm that has brought wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of many estates, we know that a dollar amount can never take the place of a loved one. Yet a successful outcome can provide some small sense of justice after the tragedy of a fatal motor vehicle accident.

Source: Market Watch, “Soon you could be sued for texting a driver that gets into a car wreck,” Bob Sullivan, May 5, 2016

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