HR Management & Compliance

Managing New Technology: Employer Hit With $30 Million Lawsuit After Worker Using Cell Phone While Driving Kills Pedestrian; Tips For Avoiding Accidents—And Liability

The debate has heated up over the safety of using cell phones while driving. Some argue that the risk of accidents while on the phone is on a par with routine distractions such as adjusting the radio or climate controls in the vehicle. Others contend that the danger greatly escalates when a driver is talking on a mobile phone.

And now employers are being drawn into the controversy. Cell phones are a boon to many companies, permitting workers who are on the road to stay in touch with the office andremotely conduct business with clients. But a $30 million lawsuit recently filed in Virginia demonstrates that if one of your employees causes an auto accident while on a work-related cell phone call, you could be in for an expensive ride. We’ll provide suggestions you can use to help employees steer clear of cell phone-related accidents.

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Lawyer On Cell Phone Kills Pedestrian

Jane Wagner, a Virginia lawyer with the Palo Alto-based law firm of Cooley Godward, was driving home when she hit something in the road. She didn’t stop, later claiming she thought she hit a deer. It turned out that she’d struck and killed 15-year-old Naeun Yoon, who was walking along the roadside. Around that time, Wagner was allegedly making cell phone calls to clients.

Wagner lost her job and law license and pleaded guilty to failing to stop after an accident. And now, Yoon’s father has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Wagner and Cooley Godward, asking for $25 million plus $5 million in punitive damages. The father claims Wagner’s phone calls caused the accident.

Family Says Law Firm Was Responsible

The lawsuit seeks to hold Cooley Godward responsible for Wagner’s conduct because the cell phone calls were made in the course of her employment. The suit charges that Wagner logged many hours on her cell phone to clients while driving, with the law firm’s approval. Plus, Cooley Godward reportedly billed clients for cell phone calls, so Wagner’s mobile calls directly benefited the firm by increasing revenues.

The concept of holding an employer indirectly liable for an employee’s misconduct isn’t new. And this isn’t the first case to test whether this liability extends to cell phone use. Recently, the state of Hawaii paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a man hit by a car driven by a state employee using her cell phone.

Avoiding Lawsuits

The best defense against similar lawsuits is to adopt a policy prohibiting employees from using mobile phones for business while driving. Put the policy in writing and have employees sign an acknowledgment.

But if a ban on cell phone use while driving isn’t feasible, you can take other helpful measures:


  1. Conduct safety training. The American Automobile Association (AAA) and the California Highway Patrol have drafted wireless phone safety tips.


  2. Provide safer equipment. New York recently became the first state to ban handheld cell phone use while driving. A bill pending in the California Legislature, A.B. 911, would impose similar restrictions. And some California cities have considered requiring hands-free equipment.


  3. Require employees to report moving violations. An employee’s spotty driving record could be a red flag that you need to limit their cell phone use while driving. It’s also wise to periodically check the DMV records of employees who are required to drive on the job.


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