Duty Not to Distract a Driver Applies Only to Others in the Vehicle?

Gamble v. Anesthesiology Associates, P.S.C.
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-20-01024-CV (July 21, 2022)
Justices Schenck, Osborne, and Smith (Opinion, linked here)
While driving on I-35 with her cruise control set to 80, Blain struck and killed two people who had stopped on the side of the highway to change a tire. At the time, Blain was engaged in a 20-minute hands-free cellphone conversation with Richter, a friend who had called Blain from Kentucky to tell her he was retiring. Blain and her employer—she was on a business trip at the time—settled. But Richter and his employer secured summary judgment against the various theories of direct, vicarious, and joint liability asserted against them. The Court of Appeals ultimately reversed and remanded on a joint-enterprise theory of liability—not on the merits, but because Richter and his employer had not moved for summary judgment on that particular issue. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). But it was the Court’s ruling on another ground that stands out.

Plaintiffs claimed Richter was negligent because he distracted Blain while he knew she was driving. But the appeals court agreed with Richter that he “had no duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid distracting Blain once he realized she was driving.” The Court acknowledged a “recognized legal duty that a person must exercise reasonable care to avoid distracting a driver while [that driver is] operating a vehicle.” But it determined that duty applies only to passengers in the vehicle, or perhaps to others in “close proximity” like those in an adjacent vehicle. “A remote cellphone caller” like Richter, the Court held, “owes no duty to the general public to control the conduct of the call recipient as a matter of law.” The appeals court therefore affirmed summary judgment on that score.

One has to wonder how far this principle extends. What if the caller asked the driver to “FaceTime” or to “Zoom” or engage in other conduct that the caller knew or reasonably should know would have the driver focus on his or her phone instead of the road? What if, instead of a call, the defendant had engaged the driver in a text or instant-message exchange, or had sent a photo or a video with the message, “You gotta see this!”—all while knowing the recipient was driving? None of these situations were present in Gamble, of course. But it’s hard to see why a “remote cellphone user” who contacts someone, knowing that other person is driving (as Richter did here), should owe any less “duty to the general public” not to distract the driver than a backseat passenger who similarly asks the driver to look at a text, photo, video or otherwise knowingly draws the driver’s attention away from the road.
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