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Opinion: One inattentive moment is all it takes

Lee C. Christie
April 28, 2010
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In the March 17-30, 2010, issue of Indiana Lawyer, my colleague David A. Temple authored an informative article on cellular phone use while driving. In closing his article, he posed the question, "[w]ho will care for, raise and play with your family when you are disabled or dead?" Unfortunately, in my representation of a family who were the victims of a distracted driver, I have had a front-row seat to one family's struggle to answer this question over the last three years as they have dealt with the devastation caused by the catastrophic injuries suffered by their patriarch and breadwinner as the direct result of the actions of a distracted driver.

In early 2007, a call came into my office regarding a trucking collision. A married father of two teenage boys, who happened to be a hugely successful in his career as a salesperson of neurological medical devices, was now barely hanging on to life at Methodist Hospital. Ironically, the man who was injured was now being saved, in part, by the same technology he was selling just hours before his vehicle was hit by an 18-wheeler on that sunny afternoon in February. The defendant driver, it seems, had been looking down at his companyissued handheld tracking device - likely anticipating his next stop or delivery. The truck driver's focus on the handheld device - known as a "mobile computer" and which had a broad range of capabilities, including texting - and his inattention to the roadway before him, caused the semi driver to blow through a red light at a well-traveled intersection and to collide with the vehicle being operated by my client. Discovery in the case revealed that the handheld device was operational while the truck was being driven and unlike similar equipment of its kind, had no automatic shut-off mechanism when the vehicle in which it was placed was in operation. A recipe for disaster, indeed.

Rather than the claim being limited to the negligence one would allege in a trucking collision of this sort and the violations one would investigate and allege based on the involvement a semi tractor trailer, I soon recognized that distracted driving was a central issue in the claim and one which exposed the driver's employer to a potential punitive damage claim. The more I researched distracted driving statistics, consulted with experts, and talked with lawyers who had handled similar cases, the more troubled I became about the hazard that handheld devices of any kind posed for travelers of our roadways. A threat akin to, if not worse than, impaired drivers according to many studies.

In our case, that moment of inattention to the roadway by the truck driver in order to glance at his handheld device has deprived my client of the ability to ever provide for his family again. He will never work again. He will never drive again. His ability to be a meaningful partner to his spouse and a father to his sons was taken that day. His brain injuries were so severe that his neurosurgeon described the damage as an "emotional and equivalent to a frontal lobotomy." To be sure, his family is grateful that he is alive and can sit among them. However, what used to be a full schedule of meeting and exceeding professional goals, attending and coaching children's sporting events, socializing with friends, and raising two boys with his life companion and best friend, has been diminished to therapy appointments, doctor appointments, surgical procedures, and many hours of idle time for a man who was once described as the "Energizer bunny" by friends and colleagues. He is a shell of who he once was, and his wife now serves as a caregiver to him and she is, in essence, a single parent to two boys in their teen years. Their lives were changed irreparably in one moment - the instant the distracted driver chose to focus on his handheld device instead of the roadway.

My colleague posed another question at the end of his Indiana Lawyer article on cell phone use while driving as follows: [i]s that phone call or e-mail so important that you are willing to risk your life or the lives of your family and friends who are in the vehicle with you or the innocent pedestrian or driver and passengers in the vehicle you hit?" I have seen the tragic results of what can happen in a distracted driving case and I can tell you that no call or e-mail is that important. Pull over. Companies should all have restrictions on the use of cell phones and/hand-held devices so that catastrophes such as this one occur much less frequently.

Lee C. Christie is an attorney with Cline Farrell Christie Lee & Caress in Indianapolis. The opinions expressed in this column are the author's.

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