Businesses across Georgia that use employee drivers to deliver goods and services are facing a growing liability problem that is significantly increasing damages awards in car accident cases throughout the State. As Atlanta business lawyers, we know businesses are liable in Georgia for injuries sustained to third parties by its employees who are on the job at the time of the injury. Companies with large fleets of vehicles often face the inevitability that an accident is going to occur at some point. With the advent of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, distracted driving has become a more common occurrence and thus an area of concern for businesses sending their employees out onto the roadways with these devices in hand. Jury verdicts in cases involving distraction due to mobile device use typically are much higher then other car accident verdicts.

The statistics revealed in a recent article I read on the subject are staggering:

1. 49% of adults admit to texting while driving.
2. When mobile devices are provided to employees by businesses, there is a 23 times higher likelihood that an accident will occur.
3. Distracted driving accidents cost billions of dollars each year.

In Georgia, the legislature has passed a law making it a driving infraction to text while driving. This is problematic for businesses because now a car accident involving an employee texting while driving will subject the employer not only to liability for the injuries inflicted but expose the business to potential liability for punitive damages because the employee broke the law at the time of the accident by texting while driving. Even more troubling is the fact that auto and general liability business insurance will typically not cover the business for any punitive damages awarded against it. What is a business to do when it needs to provide the employee with a mobile device to do his or her job and his or her work entails driving a company vehicle?

There are several steps that likely should be taken by every business to try to insulate themselves as much as possible from large distracted driving damages. The first is to implement a well thought out policy regarding the use of mobile devices while driving. It is recommended that this policy simply be directing employees not to use a mobile device at all while driving, however, that is often not practical. Many businesses allow employees to use mobile devices for navigation. If this is the case, a non-use policy should be very specific with regard to what activities are considered a violation (texting, searching the internet, talking on the phone etc.) and which are not (using device for navigation). Where it gets tricky and why you need specificity is in those situations when the employee needs to change directions on the device in the middle of driving. The policy should clearly dictate that the employee is to set the navigation feature of the device before driving and only use the device again if the vehicle is pulled over in a designated area (parking lot etc.).

The second thing that can be done is to purchase technology to be downloaded on each device given to employees that will conform to the company’s use policy. A company by the name of Aegis provides technology that will make mobile devices compliant with whatever instructions the client gives them to download onto the devices. It all works based on the speed of the vehicle. Once the vehicle and thus the device is moving at a preset speed limit, the technology engages the device so the device will only work in a way that is compliant with the employer’s use policy. For example, its navigation feature is the only available use once the device is going over 10 mph.

The final step would be to check your business’ liability coverage and get as much coverage as possible. Unless products have changed, you wont be able to get punitive damage coverage but you can at least max out your liability coverage for those cases where the jury awards a lot of general damages money to the plaintiff because they are mad that your employee was using a mobile device at the time of the accident.

Our lawyers at Spaulding Law have seen quite a few distracted driving cases where large awards were sought both because of the punitive damages aspect of the case and because the attorneys on the other side know they likely can get a jury upset with the corporate defendant over the employees use of a company device while driving a company vehicle. These awards are often amplified by the fact that many commercial vehicle accidents involve very heavy trucks versus smaller personal vehicles. Therefore, it is imperative that businesses become as proactive as possible to stop distracted driving from occurring in the first place and adequately protect the company if and when such a tragedy occurs.

Source: Fulton County Daily Report, April 10, 2013, p. 7.