The companies that employed those drivers were sued. Distracted-driving lawsuits now are part of the legal landscape, and the lawyers who bring them are increasingly going after the deep pockets of corporations that let their employees talk or text while behind the wheel.
Juries are making it worth their while: One awarded $21.6 million to the Florida family of the Honda driver.
And a federal magistrate ordered an Alabama trucking company to pay $18 million for an accident that happened when one of its drivers reached for a cellphone.
Many corporations are eager to settle once they discover they are facing lawyers armed with the smoking gun of cellphone records.
The Arkansas lumber company whose salesman crippled the 78-year-old woman paid a $16.1 million settlement.
And International Paper settled for $5.2 million after an employee on a cellphone caused a collision that cost a woman her arm.
Todd Clements, a Texas lawyer who sued the cable company for the accident that killed two women, thinks companies are wise to settle without a jury trial.
“People think there’s a good defense here by saying, ‘Everybody does it,’ ” Clements said. “Well, that’s not true, because the jury doesn’t want everyone to do it. They just want to do it themselves. It’s a huge disconnect.”
Given the opportunity to play the scold, jurors are eager, Clement said, to punish corporations in what amounts to a primal act of self-preservation: By awarding huge amounts of money to plaintiffs, they encourage corporate bans on calling and texting.
David Teater, a transportation director at the National Safety Council, recently explored corporate liability in cases involving texting and cellphone use.
“There was a recent poll in California where fear of cellphone driving outranked drunk driving for the first time,” said Teater, whose 12-year-old son was killed by a 20-year-old woman who drove her Hummer through a red light while using a cellphone.
Teater links corporate liability to research that shows drivers using cellphones are four times as likely to be involved in a crash.
“If an employer knew a behavior in some other aspect of the business put employees at four-times-greater risk of injury, would they still expect or even encourage that behavior?” he said. “It’s a huge trend. It’s a real liability for companies, a real risk.”
Whether it’s a company car, a company-issued phone or just an employee making a business call in a private car on a private phone, the corporation is within the reach of a distracted-driving lawyer.