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September 11, 2013

If you text a driver who causes an accident, should you be held liable?

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

The sender should be able to assume that the recipient will read a text message only when it is safe and legal to do so, that is, when not operating a vehicle. However, if the sender knows that the recipient is both driving and will read the text immediately, then the sender has taken a foreseeable risk in sending a text at that time. The sender has knowingly engaged in distracting conduct, and it is not unfair also to hold the sender responsible for the distraction.

This was a civil case, and by "hold the sender responsible," the appellate judges were talking about civil penalties, not criminal ones. But as Darren Gelber noted on Jersey Justice Monitor, it's not hard to imagine how this decision might affect criminal prosecutions. A prosecutor looking to make a name for himself could theoretically use the appellate court's logic to justify charging somebody like Shannon Colonna as an accessory to reckless driving. Would that charge actually stand? Who knows. But it would get a lot of attention, and would make clear that New Jersey takes distracted driving very, very seriously.

This is a controversial decision _for one thing, it's hard to see how a sender can be expected to know that the recipient will read the message immediately, unless the message is something like READ THIS IMMEDIATELY, EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE DRIVING: LOL! — and it may well be appealed to the state Supreme Court. And as Gelber noted, a New Jersey state lawmaker has already announced that she will introduce a bill that would prevent texters in Shannon Colonna's position from being sued for their actions. For now, though, you're courting a possible lawsuit if you text someone who's driving in New Jersey.

Peters writes Slate's crime blog. @slatecrime.

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