A New Jersey appeals court created a stir last month when two judges on a three-judge panel said someone who sends a text to a driver and has "special reason" to know the motorist will read the text while driving can be held liable in civil court for any resulting accident.
Overall, the court ruled that a Rockaway girl who sent a text to a driver - who, moments after responding to the text, crossed the center line and hit a couple on a motorcycle - could not be held liable because she was not aware the recipient was driving.
But two of the judges went further and said that texters have a duty not to text someone if they have reason to believe the recipient will read the text while driving.
The ruling certainly seems reasonable to us. There's not much a driver can do that is more dangerous than sending or reading a text while behind the wheel. And the practice is every bit as ubiquitous as it is dangerous, with N.J.'s law prohibiting drivers from using handheld phones apparently doing little to deter the activity.
Appellate Division Judges Victor Ashrafi and Michael Guadagno sent a powerful and important message, if you ask us. They said that someone who sends a text to a person who they know could view it while driving is akin to a passenger who knowingly distracts a driver. That passenger - and that texter - in effect have a "duty of care" to others on the road and can be held negligent if a crash occurs, the judges said.
But the decision, which drew national attention, was ridiculed more than it was praised. It was, say the critics, yet another example of an overreaching court creating a new liability and assigning blame to someone other than the obviously guilty party - in this case the driver who chooses to read and answer a text.
Never mind that the decision made it clear that this responsibility extends to the sender of a text only "when the sender has actual knowledge or special reason to know ... from prior texting experience or otherwise, that the recipient will view it while driving."
The opinion creates a narrowly drawn set of circumstances that will probably be difficult to prove. But it does make sense.
That, however, has not deterred Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, R-Monmouth, who told The Star-Ledger she plans to introduce a bill that would protect texters from civil liability for sending a message to a motorist.
She called the appellate ruling "a sad state of affairs."
Really, assemblywoman? We think the court sent a message that texters - particularly young people - need to hear. Or read. But not when they are behind the wheel.