The past few years, media coverage of several sensational traffic wrecks involving commercial trucks have further enflamed the ongoing discussion around an employer’s liability for an employee’s distracted driving.
One of those examples came from Texas, where a beverage company recently paid a $21 million verdict ($10 million in punitive damages) after one of its drivers caused an accident while using a cell phone. What makes this case so interesting is that the company had a cell phone policy in place which prohibited talking on one behind the wheel. However, the policy itself did not shield the company from negligent acts of a distracted employee.
When an accident occurs due to distracted employees driving while they are on company time – even running a work-related errand or dashing down the street to pick up lunch for himself and a supervisor – the employer is potentially liable. This is referred to as vicarious liability. And it is not new as far as personal injury law is concerned. Employers have faced such liability for generations, going back to the days of English Common Law. It’s known as “respondeat superior;” and refers to the rubric that employers are responsible for the acts of their employees’ behavior – even negligent and malicious – that are committed during the time the employee is working.
The Survey Says…
A recent online survey in September 2017 by the Harris Poll Company for Travelers insurance reveals how work-related pressures play a part in distracted driving. It discovered that 43 percent of respondents who drive were in touch with work either by talking on their smart phone (38 percent), texting (17 percent) or emailing (10 percent). And those who did this were decidedly younger, as 54 percent were 18 to 44 years old. But this was the kicker: In spite of the growing momentum for companies to have policies that either discouraged or prohibited such driving distractions, more than 25 percent of those who drive said that their employer called or texted them, even though the boss knew the employee was behind the wheel.
Travelers also devoted a portion of its focus to the question of liability in a distracted-driving accident when a driver was using the phone for a work-related matter. “If an employer texts an employee who is driving,” said Dave Nelson, a vice president at Travelers, “and the employee gets into an accident while reading or responding to the message, that company could be brought into a legal action.” He adds that maybe the best way for companies to minimize risk is to start with a written policy that specifically outlines an employee’s duties while driving on company business.
Around the same time of the survey, the American Association for Justice issued a statement telling employers of their legal exposure due to vicarious responsibility for their employees’ actions under certain circumstances; cases have been filed in hopes of expanding liability of employers in regard to distracted driving. And in October, 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new online resource to inform workers of their rights and employers of their responsibility to provide safe workplaces and offer best practices and policies to achieve safe workplaces in motor vehicles.
If you or a family member has been injured in an accident involving a distracted driver, please contact the Billy Johnson Injury Law Firm by calling us at 606-433-0682 or fill out our online contact form.