A recent appellate argument may lead the way for new civil liabilities across the nation for people who text drivers they know to be on the road at the time they send their text. Two injured motorcyclists attempted to sue the girlfriend of a driver who sent him the distracting text at the time of the accident. Both motorcyclists lost a leg, and sued the driver and the driver's girlfriend for damages. The trial court threw out the claim against the texting girlfriend, but the injured motorcyclists appealed. The panel of judges appeared to take an interest in oral arguments that hold the texter accountable for sending texts that can distract the driver.
An injured party in North Carolina can pursue civil action against any negligent party to recover damages. To succeed in a claim of negligence, the injured party must "allege the existence of a legal duty or standard of care owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, breach of that duty, and a casual relationship between the breach of duty and certain actual injury or loss sustained by the plaintiff." Sterner v. Penn, 159 N.C. App. 626, 629, 583 S.E.2d 670, 673 (2003). The aforementioned appellate argument may create the framework for a new civil duty to be applied to those who send text messages to colleagues, family, and friends. This means that texters would also be responsible to people injured by distracted drivers on the road.
If North Carolina chooses to hold those who text accountable, the injured party may have to show the following to succeed in an action against the texter: that the texter knew the driver was driving at the time they sent the text, that the texter knew the driver checks text messages while driving, and that this distraction resulted in the injury-causing accident. Proof may be necessary to show the relationship between the texter and the driver if there was not an explicit discussion documenting that the texter knew the driver was about to be on the road.
Currently there is no such duty imposed upon texters in North Carolina, but the outcome of the appellate decision in New Jersey may open the door for those injured in North Carolina to pursue claims against those who cause the driver to be distracted. At the least, North Carolina drivers still have a duty to not drive while impaired or distracted. Drivers can be held accountable for compensatory damages if they injure others while driving negligently.