Are Employers Liable for Crashes Caused by Their Workers’ Distracted Driving?

Although federal employees are banned from texting while driving, many employers in California and throughout the United States have failed to implement rules against distracted driving among their workforces, leaving them vulnerable to personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits brought by attorneys representing victims of accidents caused by their employees.

Described by the United States Secretary of Transportation, Ray H. LaHood, as a deadly epidemic, distracted driving claimed the lives of 5,474 people and injured another 448,000 in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Distracted driving has been the focus of state and government officials in recent years, with President Obama banning federal employees from texting while driving in a work-related capacity in 2009. Despite the threat to human and financial resources, many employers in California and elsewhere do not have rules or safety programs in place yet concerning distracted driving, leaving them vulnerable to personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits arising from accidents, explains an attorney.

Defined as any activity that could divert a driver’s attention away from the road, whether adjusting the radio, eating or drinking, or texting or talking on a mobile phone, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that between 25 percent to 30 percent of all traffic crashes, or approximately 4,000 or more crashes a day, are attributable to distracted driving. According to OSHA, many of these accidents occur either on an employee’s way to or from work or while engaged in work-related travel or activities; in the later case, employers could be held liable if their workers cause fatal or injury accidents due to distractions.

There are several different theories of liability under which an employer may be held liable for the actions of employees. One theory is an agency theory and is referred to as respondeat superior. Under this theory, an employee is an agent of the employer when the employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment. This means that the actions of the employee are essentially the actions of the employer, and the employer can be held liable for things the employee does.

A case in Texas illustrates how deadly the outcome of a distracted employee on the road can be: a television repairman engaged in text messaging while traveling at 70 miles per hour and crashed into another vehicle, causing fatal injuries to the mother and daughter inside. The personal injury attorney who handled the case, Todd Clement of Dallas, told the Daily Herald that evidence of distraction or a cell phone in an accident could significantly increase the value of the case—which equates to greater financial losses to the employer.

Whether operating a business in California or elsewhere, OSHA recommends that employers implement driver safety programs entailing rules, education, enforcement, and incentives for good conduct. To learn more about creating a program visit www.osha.gov.

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