A recent appeals court decision from a north Florida case seems to have
opened the door into greater investigation of
distracted driving. The case is unique because it didn't focus on whether a person was
actually talking on their cell phone or texting and driving when they
crashed. Rather, it involved a person who may have been distracted by
other things her smart phone could do, such as web surfing, displaying
contacts, or retrieving old messages.
Like many notable cases, this one begins with a tragedy. In 2012, a woman
was killed when her vehicle was involved in a collision with a truck.
The truck driver and trucking company denied they were at fault, and claimed
the accident happened because the woman was distracted by her cell phone.
Talk is cheap, of course, and these types of allegations are made routinely
these days. In this case, however, the trucking company had specific evidence
supporting its claim. Eyewitnesses and a Florida Highway Patrol officer
vouched for the possibility that the woman may have been using her phone,
as did cell phone records from her service provider.
The court recognized that other driver had a privacy interest when it came
to the information stored on her cell phone. However, it found - largely
because there was specific evidence that she was using the phone right
before the crash - that the defense's right to get at the information
was greater than the woman's right to privacy. It concluded that it
was okay for the court to allow the phone's hard drive to be downloaded
and inspected by a defense expert.
In the course of making its decision, the court discussed the fact that
texting or talking on a phone are not the only things worth discovering.
The court also mentioned that GPS data stored on smart phones can help
determine whether someone was doing something besides looking at the road
when they got involved in a wreck.
This case does not mean smart phone hard drives will always be inspected.
Again, there was specific evidence that vehicle driver may have been using
her phone in the moments leading to the fatal collision. That evidence
seemed to make a difference, and the court may have gone a different way
if the truck driver were the only person who claimed she was on her phone.
Though it did not say so, the court could have even considered the woman's
privacy rights to be diminished by her untimely death.
The fact remains, however, that this case involves an entirely new realm
of electronic information. Florida drivers should not assume they'll
only be found out if they were actually talking on a phone or texting
at the time of a wreck. The court recognized, as a matter of common sense,
that there are plenty of other things one can do with a smart phone that
take attention away from driving.
Finally, even though the driver's estate was a plaintiff, there's
no reason to believe the court would have viewed the issue differently
if she were a defendant. Thus, a driver defending against a claim of negligence
is in just as much danger of electronic scrutiny as a plaintiff. No one
is likely to be immune from scrutiny when preliminary evidence supports
the distraction claim.
If we didn't have enough reasons to avoid distracted driving already,
we should remember that our digital footprint can get us in big trouble if a
car accident occurs. We should also remember that we can be incriminated by a lot more
than just talking and texting.