MORRISTOWN, NJ (PIX11)—States have made texting while driving illegal as a measure to prevent drivers from causing crashes while their eyes are on their phones and not on the road. But is the person who sends a text that diverts a driver's attention liable if the driver ends up in a crash? That was the main question in a New Jersey courtroom Friday, in a case that could have nationwide implications.
"Certainly this case has received substantial publicity," Judge David Rand said to a full courtroom flanked by a sight that underscored his statement. "I see a lot of cameras," he said, as he nodded toward more than a half dozen video and still photographers on the side of the courtroom, assigned to monitor the outcome of his hearing.
It was the extention of a civil case involving David and Linda Kubert. The Rockaway, New Jersey, couple was riding their motorcycle on Hurd Street, in Mine Hill, around 5:48 P.M. on September 21, 2009, when a Silverado pickup, driven by Kyle Best, who was 18 at the time.
"He was texting, I could see him," David Kubert recalled, in an interview on the PIX11 Morning News earlier this year. "And then he hit us head on. After the impact, I looked down and my leg was torn right off."
David and Linda Kubert each had to have one of their legs amputated in order to survive the injuries they suffered in the crash. Eventually, the pickup driver, Kyle Best, admitted he was looking down at a text when he caused the crash. In criminal court, he was ordered to pay a $775 fine and speak at 14 high schools about the dangers of texting and driving. Best's drivers license was not suspended.
He also admitted, in sworn testimony, that the person who had texted him at the time of the crash was his girlfriend, Shannon Colonna, 17. Now that the case is in its civil phase, with the Kuberts suing for damages, their attorney wanted Colonna also named as a defendant along with Best.
"The plaintiff is arguing here that Shannon Colonna, while not physically present, was, quote, electronically present," Judge Rand said in court Friday.
He said that so-called electronic presence, if proved liable, would be considered aiding and abetting in the eyes of the law -- helping a wrongful act to happen. Even though electronic records prove that Kyle Best was receiving a text from Colonna at the moment his truck impacted with the Kuberts' motorcycle, the judge pointed out that Best had also been texting during the same drive with other people, including his father.
It was part of the reason Judge Rand pronounced from the bench, "I find there was no aiding and abetting."
The jurist added that if he were to hold a texter liable, he would also have to hold other distractions in the vehicle liable, such as a stereo or GPS. He said, regarding the Kuberts' request to hold the text-sender liable, "I find that position is without merit and there is no duty imposed under these circumstances to inculcate any liability upon Ms. Colonna."
And with that, it was official, from the superior court bench. The driver is solely responsible for crashes involving texting, and drivers should not read texts while behind the wheel.
After the hearing, the Kuberts' attorney, Stephen Weinsten said by phone that his clients were pleased that their case has raised national awareness of the dangers both reading texts while driving. The couple plans an appeal of the judge's decision.