If You Send A Text To A Driver, Can You Go To Jail If He Crashes? (UPDATED)

May 28, 2012

UPDATED: See below

Today, most states have laws that limit the use of cell phones while driving. In 38 states, it's illegal to text and drive, and in 31, there are laws about making and taking calls behind the wheel.

And yet, distracted driving remains a major problem: in 2010, it accounted for over 3,000 fatalities in the U.S., or nearly 10% of the total.

But here's an interesting question: if you're sitting at home, and you text a friend who's driving, are you at fault if that friend has an accident while reading your text message?

As weird as it sounds, that's the case being made in a New Jersey court by Stephen "Skippy" Weinstein.

On September 21, 2009, Mr. Weinstein's clients -- David and Linda Kubert -- were riding a motorcycle when Kyle Best's pickup drifted into the opposite lane and struck them. The Kuberts suffered some grisly injuries, including amputations.

Best admitted in municipal court that he was distracted by a text message during the crash. He pleaded guilty to using a hand-held cellphone while driving, careless driving, and failure to maintain a lane. He was fined $775 and sentenced to community service.

But of course, the Kuberts are suing. And throughout the proceedings, Weinstein has insisted that some blame for the accident should be placed on the shoulders of Shannon Colonna, who sent the text message to Best.

Colonna's lawyer has asked judge David Rand to dismiss her from the lawsuit. However, Rand refused to do so, and has said that he'll issue a ruling on Colonna's culpability next week.

Guilty or no?

We may not be attorneys, but we've picked up anything from watching years of Law and Order, it's that you should never assume a verdict will come out exactly as expected.

So, like others watching this case, we'll wait patiently for Rand's ruling. But we'll be awfully surprised if he says that Colonna is in any way responsible for the Kuberts' troubles.

For starters, the sequence of events is a little muddy. Best said that he looked down at Colonna's text message just before the crash, but evidence indicates that, in fact, he may have been the last one to send a message that fateful day.

More importantly, Colonna wasn't at the wheel, nor was she physically in the car. As the Daily Record points out, a passenger can occasionally be held responsible for a collision if that passenger encourages the driver to do unsafe or illegal things. Weinstein argues that Colonna was "electronically present" at the time of the collision, but that seems like a stretch. The area might've been a bit grayer if they were talking on the phone, but that wasn't the case. 

Our take

This is the kind of story that makes us sad, because there can never be a winner.

The Kuberts' lives have been changed forever. Best has admitted fault, and has to live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his days. And even if Colonna is acquitted -- and we have a hunch she will be -- she'll have to live with her guilt, too.

America's increasingly litigious culture has taken a disturbing turn over the past couple of decades, with scores of defendants relying on what Alan Dershowitz famously dubbed "the abuse excuse". Weinstein's argument doesn't quite fall into that category, but it's similar in that it does try to blame someone other than the perpetrator of the criminal act.

Weinstein is probably just trying to score more cash for his clients (and himself), by following that age-old rule: "sue everyone". But doing so absolves Best of responsibility. From where we sit: Best is guilty, he's said that he's guilty, let it rest.

Do you think Colonna -- or any text-message sender -- should be found guilty in cases like this? Have a look at the ABC news story below, then drop us a line or leave a comment.

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UPDATED: According to CBS New York, Judge Rand has ruled on this matter, agreeing with most of you that the driver alone carries the burden of responsibility, not the text-message sender. In a statement, Rand said, "We expect more of our drivers. We expect more of the people who are given the right and the privilege to operate vehicles on our highways."

It's not immediately clear if the Kuberts will appeal the decision.

[via Cnet]

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