Are Companies Liable For Employees' Cellphone Distraction, Damages?

June 14, 2012

Is your employer responsible, at least in part, when you talk or text?

If you believe the raft of jury settlements awarding millions in some high-profile lawsuits that reach deep into some companies' pockets—against companies whose workers were in an accident (and caused injury or death) while driving distracted—then the answer is possibly yes.

Dave Teater, senior director of transportation initiatives at the National Safety Council (NSC), in an appearance on the radio show Here and Now last week, outlined that it appears that employers can be held responsible if an employee causes a crash while:

  • Driving a company car, regardless of whether it's during working hours or not
  • Driving their own car but on company business
  • Using a company cellphone, regardless of whether it's a personal or company call
  • Using their own personal cellphone for business

And even when a driver is using his or her own car, their own time, and their own cellphone, there's still a chance that the company could be held liable in some situations, according to Teater, whose organization advocates a total ban on cellphone use while driving.

As a lawyer recently pointed out to the Washington Post, jurors are eager to scold with large settlements, and to encourage company bans on calling and texting.

Yet at the same time, there's plenty of hypocrisy. According to NHTSA estimates, about ten percent of all drivers, at any given time, are having a cellphone conversation, and eight in ten young drivers admit to texting while driving—yet many continue to talk while driving even after reminded of the dangers.

Yes, but not me

It's an extension of the 'not me' paradox—I can do the same thing you can, but I can do it safer, argued Teater. “The vast majority of us think that we're safer than the other guy.”

About 65 percent of Americans think that all cellphones should be banned. And according to a California study—as well as an annual AAA study—the fear of cellphone-distracted drivers recently surpassed fear of drunk drivers.

A number of companies that are particularly safety-minded—including most oil companies—have had policies in place banning cellphone use while driving since 2004 or 2005, according to Teater. And one of the common arguments against such a ban—lost productivity—simply doesn't hold. “We've got pretty strong evidence from companies that have put this in place that it's not having any negative impact on productivity,” he said.

UPS, Dupont, Chevron, Shell, Time Warner are among many large companies that do have a ban. And as our editorial director Marty Padgett points out, it's also policy here at High Gear Media.

Smart company policy—and self-preservation

Even if you're a smaller company, it's in your interest to consider such a policy—if not for a sense of responsibility, for self-preservation.

Drivers using cellphones are about four times as likely to get into a crash, and if they're on company time, or doing company business, they're subjecting themselves and their company to that risk and liability.

“If you had another activity in a plant that you were able to measure caused somebody to be four times as likely to get in a workplace injury, you wouldn't do it,” argued Teater.

Does your company have a policy on using cellphones while driving? Or does your company force you to conduct business while behind the wheel? Let us know what you think in comments below.

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