If a Maryland Employees Gets Into A Distracted Driving Accident, When is the Employer Liable?

The problem of distracted driving, or driving while also trying to use a cell phone or other mobile device, has gained significant attention in recent years. States and cities have passed laws restricting use of mobile devices in an effort to curb distracted driving and improve safety. Distracted driving continues to play a role in thousands of automobile accidents, some of them fatal.

The federal government reports that distracted driving-related accidents killed at least 3,092 people in 2010. Around 416,000 drivers, passengers, and pedestrians were injured in crashes where at least one driver was not paying complete attention while behind the wheel. In claims for personal injuries in distracted driving accidents, the driver who caused the accident is almost always the main liable party, but in some cases a driver’s employer may also be liable. With greater attention being given to distracted driving, many employers are enacting cell phone policies in an effort to limit their own liability for their employees’ distraction-related accidents.

Employers may be liable for the negligent or unlawful actions of their employees in certain circumstances, according to the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. This doctrine holds an employer liable for accidents that occur while an employee is performing ordinary job duties in the regular course of operating their business. Courts have tended to take an expansive view of what activities are related to an employee’s job duties for the purpose of determining liability under a theory of respondeat superior. doctrine. Generally speaking, courts will apply the doctrine in a situation where an employee might engage in work-related activities, or where an observer might reasonably think the person is involved in work-related activities.

One example provided by Bloomberg BNA involves the appearance of performing job duties. An off-duty police officer in Maryland was involved in a fatal car crash while driving a police cruiser and talking on the telephone. The court held the city liable for the accident because the was talking on the phone while, albeit off-duty, while using a police vehicle.

A somewhat similar case held a company liable for a fatal accident caused by an employee driving a company-owned car. The employee was allegedly talking on the phone with her husband at the time of the accident, possibly for non-employment-related reasons. The appearance, because of the company vehicle, led to liability for the company.

Businesses may find better ways to avoid liability for their employees’ negligence through stricter company policies on cell phone use, brought on by toughened distracted driving laws. Many states and municipalities have enacted laws prohibiting various uses of portable electronic communication devices while driving. A common restriction, now in effect in most states, is a ban on typing and sending text messages while driving. Also common is a ban on the use of handheld cell phones by drivers, and bans on most or all cell phone use by young or beginner drivers.

Even with a violation of a distracted driving law by an employee, courts may still hold an employer liable for damages caused in an accident. The National Safety Council therefore recommends that companies enact cell phone policies that are stricter than the law in their jurisdiction. That way, an employer can disclaim liability by arguing that the employee not only broke the law, but violated company policy and acted outside of the employee’s regular job duties.

The Maryland accident injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen are skilled at pursuing justice for people injured in automobile accidents on Maryland roads. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

Web Resources:

Employer Liability and the Case for Comprehensive Cell Phone Policies (PDF), National Safety Council, 2012 (source)

More Blog Posts:

Maryland Gets Touger on Distracted Driving, Maryland Accident Law Blog, May 29, 2012
Washington DC Survey Shows Increase in Distracted Driving, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, May 22, 2012
University of Maryland Study Shows Increased Risk of Pedestrian Injuries with Electronics Use, Maryland Accident Law Blog, April 11, 2012

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