United States: Third Party Liability In Distracted Driving Litigation

Dallas, Texas (February 26, 2019) - Litigation arising out of automobile crashes resulting from the use of smartphones and similar modern technology is on the rise. Recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – which presides over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – ruled in a case of first impression that Apple was not liable for a driver’s neurobiological response to a smartphone notification which caused him to check his phone and cause an accident as the result of the distraction. See Meador v. Apple, Inc., 911 F.3d 260 (5th Cir. 2018).

Motorists that use their mobile devices while driving are considered distracted drivers, and cause approximately 10% of fatal vehicle crashes in the United States. Emily K. Strider, Don't Text A Driver: Civil Liability of Remote Third-Party Texters After Kubert v. Best, 56 Wm. & Mary L. Review 1003 (2014). While states have begun banning texting and driving, plaintiffs around the country have been looking to expand the liability for smartphone-related distracted driving to third parties such as phone manufacturers, ride-sharing software companies, and the persons sending text messages to drivers.

Recent Developments

Third-party liability frequently emerges as an issue in the context of distracted driving. Late in 2018, the Fifth Circuit was the first court to rule regarding a phone manufacturer’s liability for a car accident caused by a driver who was distracted by a notification on his phone. See Meador v. Apple, Inc., 911 F.3d 260 (5th Cir. 2018). The court noted that “no court in the country has yet held that [a manufacturer of a cell phone could be held liable for the actions of a driver distracted by a cell phone], and numerous courts have declined to do so” and ruled that the governing Texas law placed the responsibility on the driver, and not a remote party such as a cell phone provider or the vehicle manufacturer. See id. Meanwhile, courts across the nation have been expanding third-party liability in other contexts.

For example, New Jersey Courts have openly adopted a third-party liability approach, imposing responsibility upon even the sender of a text if an accident is caused by the text, and if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving. See Kubert v. Best, 75 A.3d 1214, 1227-28 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2013). Neighboring states such as Pennsylvania have not yet affirmatively adopted this strict approach on distracted driving; however, at least one court made it clear that it may find third-party liability in appropriate circumstances. See Gallatin v. Gargiulo, et al., No. 10401 of 2015 (Pa. Com. Pl. Mar. 9, 2015) (Lawrence Cty.) (Hodge, J.) (court refused to dismiss claims against a defendant who was texting the driver who allegedly caused the car accident allowing plaintiff to conduct discovery to determine if the sender violated a duty to plaintiff). The court in Gallatin noted that for liability to attach, an individual must know or have reason to know at the time of the accident that the person they texted was driving and would view the text. Id. at 9.

Third-party liability theories in distracted driving litigation continue to evolve. Recently, a Detroit woman who was a passenger in a high speed collision while riding in a Lyft is suing both Lyft and Uber ride sharing services, alleging that her driver was distracted by pick-up notifications, causing him to crash. See JC Reindl, Detroit Free Press, (December 28, 2018). The lawsuit claims that the driver was traveling about 70 miles per hour when he crashed into a tractor-trailer stopped on the highway. This is the first time Uber and Lyft have been sued in a distracted-driving case. Id.

Proximate Cause of the Accident

In most of these cases where plaintiffs have attempted to impose liability on third parties other than the distracted driver, the issue of liability has often turned on whether the third party – a cellphone carrier, a manufacturer or even a social media platform – was the proximate cause of the accident. See e.g., Meador, 911 F.3d at 264 (“under Texas law, negligence requires a showing of proximate cause.”).

The proximate cause is generally a two-step inquiry: (1) cause in fact and; (2) foreseeability. Id. at 264 (citing Ford Motor Co. v. Ledesma, 242 S.W.3d 32 (Tex. 2007)). Cause in fact means that the defendant’s acts or omissions were a substantial factor in bringing about the injury which would not otherwise have occurred. See id. at 264. “Substantial” means “the defendant’s conduct ha[d] such an effect in producing the harm as to lead reasonable men to regard it as a cause.” See id. at 265. In Meador, the court refused to find that an iPhone’s notification system’s effect on the driver was the substantial factor in the driver’s tortious acts, thus finding no proximate cause between Apple’s manufacturing of a phone with a notification system and the car accident. Id.

In Durekee v. Geologic Solutions, Inc., the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the first prong of the proximate cause analysis – causation. 502 Fed. Appx. 326, 327 (4th Cir. 2013). In that case, a motorist drove a tractor-trailer into a vehicle, causing fatal injuries. Id. The plaintiffs claimed that the driver became distracted by the presence of a texting system located in the truck which was manufactured by a subsidiary of Xata and alleged that Xata owed them a legal duty of care because injuries to the traveling public as a result of the texting apparatus were reasonably foreseeable. Id. at 327. The court did not address the foreseeability argument, but ruled that the cause of the accident was not the device itself, but rather, the defendant’s inattention. Id. at 328. The court further held that manufacturers are not required to design a product incapable of distracting drivers, and that Xata owed no duties to plaintiffs. Id.

In Williams v. Cingular Wireless, the Court of Appeals of Indiana, First District, addressed both causation and foreseeability explaining that:

“[a] cellular phone does not cause a driver to wreck a car. Rather, it is the driver’s inattention while using the phone that may cause an accident. Drivers frequently use cellular phones without causing accidents, and, of course, cellular phones are used in all sorts of places other than in vehicles. We do not conclude that there was a high degree of foreseeability that the sale of the phone would result in an accident.” 809 N.E.2d 473 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004).

Thus, the two-step analysis courts utilize to determine proximate cause has provided a shield for third-party defendants in litigation arising out of distracted driving.


Despite numerous texting-and-driving bans around the country, drivers continue to engage in this behavior. As litigation involving distracted driver theories continues to rise, plaintiffs will continue to look for ways to hold third parties liable for injuries caused by distracted drivers. While the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was the first court to consider whether a phone manufacturer can be liable for a driver’s neurobiological response to a smartphone notification, it certainly will not be the last court to consider that argument or similar ones.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions