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Cell Phone-Related Accidents Cost Employers Millions In Jury Awards

(AP)

(AP)

Lawyers are targeting companies whose employees have caused auto accidents while using their cell phones.

And juries and judges are handing out huge awards.

The Washington Post reported that a jury awarded a Florida family $21 million after a 32-year-old woman was killed in a cell phone-related car accident.

A Texas jury ordered Coca Cola to pay $21 million to a 37-year-old woman, who suffered nerve damage to her back after she was hit by a car driven by a Coca Cola sales person talking on a cell phone.

And International Paper settled for $5.2 million after an employee on a cell phone caused an accident that cost a woman her arm.

Lawyers are beginning to go after companies in these lawsuits, because corporations have deeper pockets than individuals. And the scope of liability is broad.

Company Liability

“Some of these companies wouldn’t dream of letting fork lift operators in a plant talk on a cell phone while driving around. But they’ve got sales people on the road doing it all day long.”
– Dave Teater, National Safety Council

Companies could be held responsible in cell phone-related accidents if an employee is driving a company car; if the employee is driving a private car, but on company business; if the employee is using a company cell phone, regardless of whether it’s a company or private call; or if an employee is using a private cell phone for company business.

Dave Teater, senior director of transportation initiatives at the National Safety Council, said that jurors are handing out big awards, even though many of them also use cell phones while driving.

“The vast majority of us think we’re safer than the other guy,” Teater told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “That’s just a paradox in traffic safety that’s always been a challenge and probably always will be.”

Dangers Of Using Cell Phones While Driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that using a cell phone while driving makes you four times more likely to get into an accident.

While many people argue that talking on a cell phone is no more dangerous than listening to the radio or speaking to a passenger in the car, Teater says research proves just the opposite.

“The passenger might even help the driver make a decision about whether they’re stopping or going,” Teater said. “You don’t have that with a phone conversation, your mind is engaged somewhere else. It’s not engaged in the car.”

Teater said companies that encourage their employees to use cell phones on the road aren’t weighing the risks properly.

“Some of these companies wouldn’t dream of letting fork lift operators in a plant talk on a cell phone while driving around. But they’ve got sales people on the road doing it all day long,” Teater said.

Companies Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving

Many Fortune 500 companies, like UPS, Dupont, Chevron and Time Warner, have already banned employees from using cell phones while driving.

Teater said larger companies are ahead of other businesses on this issue, because they have people dedicated to ensuring workplace safety.

And Teater said productivity has actually gone up at companies that have instituted bans on using cell phones while driving.

“A lot of people, they think these are critical business calls, but they’re really just passing time because they’re bored,” Teater said.

Personal Issue

Teater began working at the National Safety Council after his 12-year-old son, Joseph, was killed by a driver, who was on talking on her cell phone.

“She was 20-years-old. She was on the phone with her church where she volunteered for kids my son’s age,” Teater said. “Her life was devastated as well. There’s no good outcome when something like this happens.”

The NSC is calling for a full ban on cell phone use while driving.

Teater said he realizes that would take a massive paradigm shift, but he believes if people truly understood the risks, they wouldn’t take the chance.

“It’s not just their life they’re risking. They’re risking everybody’s lives around them,” Teater said.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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