Employers Potentially Liable for Accidents Caused by Employees Using Cell Phones

Cell phones now allow employees to conduct business from nearly any conceivable location, but when that location is a vehicle moving at 60 miles per hour, a dangerous situation can occur for which employers are liable. 

Cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries every year in the United States according to a study in the Journal of Human Factors, a scientific, peer-reviewed publication.  Employers across nearly every industry are now highly exposed to this potentially costly liability. 

Huge settlements, including those in the multi-million dollar range, have been awarded to individuals who have been injured in accidents caused by drivers conducting business on their cell phones. An employer can potentially be liable even for accidents that occur during personal phone calls if a company provides a cell phone to its employees or if a cell phone is necessary or encouraged as part of their job.

State governments throughout the country are acknowledging this danger and are reacting with new legislation.  Some states prohibit talking on a cell phone while driving unless a “hands-free” device is used.  Other jurisdictions are prohibiting all cell phone use while operating a moving vehicle for certain classes of drivers, such as young drivers and bus drivers. 

In order to help protect the safety of employees and others on the road, and also to help mitigate a company’s exposure, employers are strongly urged to develop cell phone usage policies and conduct employee cell phone safety training programs. 

Being very cautious, some companies are now strictly prohibiting the use of cell phones for business purposes while driving or requiring a “hands-free” phone.  Employers should know, however, that research including a 1997 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that the likelihood of having an automobile accident increases four-fold when talking on a cell phone regardless of whether it is a “hands-free” phone. 

Other specific safety guidelines that can be incorporated into a cell phone usage policy include:  dialing only while the car is stopped; not making calls while in traffic or inclement weather; not having stressful conversations while driving; and use of speed dialing when possible.  A strong policy should list the disciplinary consequences of not following the cell phone usage guidelines. 

Additional measures include equipping company-owned cell phones with a sticker warning of the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone.  Employers can also add language to their cell phone bill reimbursement forms requiring employees to certify that they did not break company policy in using their cell phone. 

While there is no guaranteed release from this new area of liability, companies with strong cell phone policies and training programs do put themselves in a much better legal position.  To maximize their protection companies need to strictly enforce cell phone policies and maintain current documentation.   Such documentation should include written acknowledgement of each employee’s receipt of the policy and training, and also records of any violations and disciplinary action.

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