Employee on Cell Phone in Car can be Costly for Employer

Debra Ford was driving on Interstate 16 in Georgia when her car was hit by a sedan driven by Vanessa McGrogan, an International Paper Company employee who was driving a company-owned car with the cruise control set at 77 mph in a 70 mph zone and according to a witness, talking on her company-issued cell phone at the time of the accident.

Ford’s car was overturned and slid along the asphalt and Ford’s arm got trapped between the car door and the pavement, leading to an amputation of her arm up to the shoulder.

Who do you think had to pay to settle the lawsuit that inevitably followed this horrific accident? International Paper, of course.

The employer-issued cell phone and company vehicle guaranteed that the party with the deepest pockets would be sued. McGrogan’s employer settled the case for $5.2 million in 2008.

Cell phone use also led to a woman who was severely injured by a salesman involved in an accident while he was talking on his cell phone being awarded $21 million by a Miami jury in a suit against lumber wholesaler Dykes Industries in 2001. The salesman was driving on company business at the time and talking on his cell phone.

In January 2010, a lawsuit in South Carolina was settled for an undisclosed amount just hours before trial. At stake was $55 million in insurance carried by the employer of Sharon King, who was not working at the time of the incident, but was driving a company vehicle and talking on her cell phone when she allegedly hit two bicyclists riding in a charity event. King pleaded guilty to a reckless driving charge.

The King case has received so much publicity in South Carolina that the legislature there is fast-tracking legislation to ban texting and talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. Some of that urgency may have resulted from the brilliant (and inflammatory) pretrial statement of one of the attorneys for the cyclist’s estate who called cell phone use in cars “the new DUI”.

Texas does not ban hand-held cell phone use for anyone other than bus drivers. What that means is that as a Texas employer, you have to take responsibility for training and monitoring your own employees who could put the company’s assets at risk by driving and talking or texting.

A texting driver is 23 times more likely to have an accident or come close to having an accident than a driver who is paying attention to her driving, according to a Virginia Tech study.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 25% of all crashes are caused by distraction. Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving has been shown to be significantly more distracting than eating or talking to a fellow passenger. And we can all agree that texting while driving is idiotic.

So how does an employer prevent its employees from exposing the company to enormous liability while driving?

Reconsider whether the liability associated with issuing company vehicles and company cell phones is worth the perk. Many companies would rather reimburse an employee his mileage for using his own car during work hours or pay a cell phone allowance than to assume the 24-hour per day liability that is associated with a company vehicle and a company cell phone.

You also need a written policy and extensive training of every employee followed by strict disciplinary enforcement of the policy prohibiting any use of a hand-held cell phone while driving on company business. Although a complete ban of cell phones in cars would be the safest policy, if that is impractical, you can at least buy Bluetooth headsets for your employees to discourage any hand-held cell phone use.

Finally, check your company liability insurance policies to make sure you are well covered if anything as horrendous as the King case happens to one of your employees.

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