Cell Phone Use and Accident Liability – What You Need to Know

In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 3,477 people were killed in distracted driving-related accidents. To help curb this growing problem, many states have implemented laws that ban the use of cell phones while driving.

Here's what you need to know about cell phone use and accident liability.

Drivers May Face Fines and Penalties for Cell Phone Use

Drivers who are caught using their phones may be hit with fines and other penalties. The consequences may be more severe if the cell phone use causes an accident.

Whether or not you face penalties for cell phone use will depend on where you live.

Here's a breakdown of current laws on cell phone use while driving:

  • Hand-held Phones: There are currently 14 states that have banned drivers from using hand-held mobile phones while driving, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, D.C. and Guam. In these states, these are primary enforcement laws, which means officers can pull over drivers strictly for using a hand-held cell phone.
  • Text Messaging: There are currently 47 states that have banned texting while driving. Washington was the first to ban texting in 2007. Most are primary enforcement laws. Among the four states that do not have primary enforcement, three have banned texting for new drivers and one restricts texting among school bus drivers.
  • Cell Phone Use: No states have outright banned cell phone use while driving, but 38 states prohibit cell phone use among new drivers. In 20 states, school bus drivers are prohibited from using cell phones while driving.

Most states ban cell phone use while driving in some way, whether it be text messaging or the use of a hand-held device.

Tennessee has the highest number of cellphone-related fatalities in the country and blames $10 - $50 tickets for being too lax to curb distracted driving.

Drivers Can Be Sued for Cell Phone Use in Accidents

Drivers may also be sued for using their phone or texting while driving if their negligent behavior causes an accident.

When filing a lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant's negligence was the cause of the damages. Even in states where cell phone use is not prohibited while driving, plaintiffs may argue that the cell phone use caused the driver to become distracted and drive carelessly.

Plaintiffs in recent cases have argued that drivers were at fault for accidents because they were using their cell phone before or during the accident. Some injured plaintiffs have also argued that the other driver contributed to the accident because they were using their phone, although they were not fully liable.

Cell phone use can distract drivers in many ways, which can cause them to drive carelessly. Careless driving can be perceived as negligence, depending on the circumstances of the accident.

The distractions caused by cell phone use can include:

  • Driving with just one hand on the wheel
  • Not paying attention to their surroundings
  • Taking their eyes off the road to dial a number, reach for a cell phone or send a text message
  • Conversations, especially emotionally charged discussions

Even when using a hands-free device, conversations can be distracting while driving and lead to careless driving.

Employers May Be Held Liable for Employee Cell Phone Use While Driving

An employer can also be held liable for an accident if an employee's cell phone use causes the collision. Negligence would only apply if the employee was on a work-related phone call, or sending or reading a work-related text message at the time of the accident.

In cases like this, plaintiffs are more likely to sue employers because they have more money to pay out in a settlement or judgment.

Because of the liability risks, many employers now prohibit the use of cell phones while driving.

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