Three states already have engaged statewide manually held cell phone laws: Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. DC has such a law and California has enacted a law, but it will not go into effect until January 2008. But a number of significant court cases are likely to puncture opposition arguments to such laws in a couple more states and at the very least disrupt business as usual.
Use of hand-held cell phones while driving in both New York and Pennsylvania may have been spurred onward with the help of a couple quite public cases in which victims were killed at the hands of a driver distracted with a cell phone.
A high-profile court case in 2004 in Virginia has already had an impact on the way many businesses handle cell phones and their employees. In the case of Yoon v. Wagner, a young Virginia attorney (Wagner) accidentally killed a 15-year old girl (Yoon) who was walking alongside the road. Allegedly Wagner was fumbling with her cell phone and trying to take care of additional business while driving. Her distraction cost a young girl her life and the subsequent media fallout put employers on alert across the country.
Wagner ultimately was found guilty of a felony, ordered to pay 2 million dollars in damages. Her former law firm was also charged—she was on company time, making company calls when the child was killed. The firm ultimately settled for a tidy sum of money and fired Wagner who will never practice law again. A lot of lives were changed from a cell phone diversion.
Businesses can be held liable for an employee’s error if they are found to be on a cell phone during work hours and conducting work related business when an accident or event occurs. The “theory of vicarious liability” is the applicable legal mechanism in cases like Yoon v. Wagner and others.
In 2002 a construction worker in Georgia (Steinmetz) collided with the vehicle of another driver (Smith) who had stopped to make a turn. Smith was severely wounded and subsequently sued Beers Skanska, Inc., Steinmetz’s employer. Steinmetz missed Smith’s stopped vehicle when he reached for his work cell phone. Beers settled with Smith out of court for $5 million.
The Beers Skanska and Yoon v. Wagner cases are just two of a slew of employer liability cases since the late 90s wherein employees have killed or injured another person while distracted on a work cell phone. The fallout has impelled many companies all over the country to suspend all work-related cell phone use while driving; or to design sweeping and company-wide cell phone policies.
Unfortunately it takes horrific and tragic events like death and injury to appeal to people’s better judgment. The above cases inject enough liability into the workplace to inspire widespread policy changes.