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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Cell Phones: Legal Liability in Traffic Accidents?

Accidents involving a driver who is distracted while talking on a cell phone have been prosecuted as negligence similar to driving while intoxicated. In many states and foreign countries, such as Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, driving while using a cell phone is illegal.

Bostonworks.com reported on the Yoon v. Cooley Godward case.

In October 2004, the San Francisco law firm Cooley Godward settled a $30 million lawsuit in the death of 15- year-old Naeun Yoon, who was struck and killed in 2000 on a busy highway outside Fairfax, Va., by one of its employees - a lawyer accused of making a business call on her cellphone while driving. After serving a year in jail and surrendering her law license, Jane Wagner was ordered to pay $2 million in damages to Yoon's family by a circuit court jury in Loudoun County, Va. While the firm's insurance company paid $92,500, according to its attorney, John McGavin of Fairfax, the firm was not held liable.

However, the case of Yoon v. Cooley Godward had broader implications. It suggested that employers could be "vicariously liable for the cellphone-induced distracted driving of their employees, even if phone calling is not within the scope of employment," noted Ross Guberman, an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School who has written about the case.

"The classic case of vicarious liability," he wrote in an e-mail to The Boston Globe, "is a truck driver who runs into a pedestrian while asleep at the switch. But with the civil suit over the Yoon tragedy, law firms and corporations are now terrified that they could be hit with a million-dollar judgment simply because one of their employees swerves and kills someone while talking about work."

State laws vary on driving distractions [stateline.org, Mar. 22, 2005]
Can Cooley Godward Avoid Blame in Girl's Death? [law.com, Sept. 10, 2003]
Cell phones – Great New Technology or Latest Per Se Negligence?
Is Your Company Responsible For Your Cellphone Misuse? [wsj, July 19, 2001]
Firms formulate guidelines for employee cellphone use [bostonworks.com, Jan. 23, 2005]

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