Texting and driving is on a lot of people’s minds these days. Whether it’s the sadness we feel when we hear about an accident resulting from it, or whether it’s the irritation that wells up when we’re driving and see someone simultaneously maneuvering their vehicle at 70 mph while searching for the just the right emoji, it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. In 2013, the Center for Disease Control reported that 3,154 drivers were killed in car accidents involving a “distracted driver.”
Of course, any driver who causes an accident while texting is likely to face civil, if not criminal liability. It’s impossible to argue that anyone who texts while driving isn’t negligent. Actually, let me amend that previous statement, if we have learned anything from this year’s presidential primary, it is actually possible to argue anything. I should have said it’s impossible to argue successfully that a texting driver isn’t negligent. But I digress.
A new lawsuit recently filed in Georgia takes the texting while driving concept one step further. The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Maynard Wentworth, an Uber driver who was starting his shift one night last September. A driver named Crystal McGee collided with Mr. Maynard that night, causing him to suffer traumatic brain injuries. He spent several months in the hospital. Not surprisingly, Mr. Wentworth sued Ms. McGee. Somewhat more surprisingly, Mr. Wentworth also sued Snapchat, claiming it was at least partially responsible for the accident.
How is it that Snapchat finds itself a defendant in an otherwise routine traffic collision suit? Apparently Ms. McGee was using the Snapchat “speed filter” at the time of the collision. The speed filter allows users to post how fast they’re travelling while taking a selfie. That is not a typo. Of course, the feature advises people not to use the feature while driving, but clearly that warning did not deter Ms. McGee. At the time she collided with Mr. Wentworth, according to the lawsuit, Ms. McGee was attempting to reach 100 mph and was just about to post a photo on Snapchat.
The complaint contends that Snapchat knew – prior to the September incident – that wrecks had occurred due to the use of Snapchat’s app while driving at high speeds. According to the lawsuit, that knowledge, coupled with Snapchat’s apparent inaction, renders Snapchat liable for Mr. Wentworth’s injuries. It’s not a bad idea to include Snapchat in the suit. It likely has deeper pockets than Ms. McGee, and from a plaintiff’s perspective the more the defendants the better.
But the key question is whether the suit has a chance of success. We’ll see. There is a concept in the law known as foreseeability. An act has to be “reasonably foreseeable” in order for the responsible party to be liable. So for example, any driver could take a car and drive it down a sidewalk if they were so inclined. The car manufacturer however wouldn’t be liable for the resulting damage, since it's not reasonably foreseeable that a driver would do that. A similar concept is the “intervening cause” – again in the car on the sidewalk example, the deranged driver is the intervening cause of the damage, even though from a pure physics analysis, the “cause” of the damage was the two ton vehicle.
Snapchat will certainly raise those defenses. And it may be successful. But ironically, the warning about not using the feature while driving may limit the effectiveness of those defenses. That is, if it wasn’t foreseeable, why warn against it?
We shall see. But for all the bad mouthing directed at plaintiffs’ lawyers, the fact is that many products are safer now because of personal injury lawsuits that forced manufacturers to include safety enhancements. It’s likely this phenomenon will impact App developers and smart phone manufacturers. And it will be interesting to see how future products may help limit texting and driving – both for altruistic reasons and to protect the bottom line.