Lawsuits involving texting and driving are starting to make their way through the courts. One recent set of cases involved a multi-vehicle accident that, some say, stemmed from a commercial driver being distracted by the texting system in his vehicle.
In an opinion handling combined appeals, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently decided a product liability case that arose from a motor vehicle accident. Carroll Jett allegedly drove a fully loaded tractor-trailer into vehicles that were slowed or stopped in front of him, causing injuries to one family and the death of another family’s child. The injured motorists claimed that Jett became distracted by the texting system in the cab of his truck. The texting system was manufactured by a subsidiary of Xata, a company that provides fleet management software.
The injured families contended before the federal trial court that Xata owed them a legal duty of care because injuries to the traveling public were reasonably foreseeable based on the texting system’s design that (1) required the driver to divert his eyes from the road to view an incoming text from the dispatcher, and (2) permitted the receipt of texts while the vehicle was moving. The district court granted Xata’s motions to dismiss, concluding that the accident was caused by the driver’s inattention, not the texting device itself and that manufacturers are not required to design a product incapable of distracting a driver.
On appeal, the accident victims challenged the trial court’s conclusion that Xata owed them no duty of care. Although the court’s opinion doesn’t provide many details, it says that the motor vehicle accident victims complained on appeal that the judge mischaracterized Jett’s conduct as “misuse” of the texting system. It is apparent from the judge’s recommendations and the district court’s opinions that the term “misuse” was intended to indicate improper or careless use of the system by the driver, rather than a use that was unintended by the manufacturer, the appeals court responded.
Relying on an earlier decided case that held that the duty owed by product manufacturers does not require them to guard against hazards apparent to the casual observer or to protect against injuries resulting from the user’s own patently careless and improvident conduct, the appeals court concluded that the district court properly dismissed the accident victims’ claims.
The accident victims also argued that the district court failed to accept the allegations contained in their complaints as true. The appellate court rejected this contention, explaining that the trial court properly construed the facts in their favor and that it was not required to accept as correct the legal conclusions asserted in the complaints.
As a result, the appellate court affirmed the judgments of the trial court.
The cases are Barbara Durkee, et al. v. Geologic Solutions, et al. and Joshua Bailey v. Geologic Solutions, et al.
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