Surprising Liabilities: When You're to Blame
Texting while driving is unnecessary and dangerous. But should cell phone user who knowingly texts someone who is driving be responsible if the worst should happen?
In a case out of New Jersey, a couple, who were badly injured in a crash with a distracted driver, sued a 17-year-old for texting her boyfriend, the one responsible for the accident. Although the court didn't find the girlfriend liable in this particular case, jurists accepted the idea of a party bearing some responsibility for knowingly texting someone who is behind the wheel, according to CNN.
This isn't the only case where liability for an injury or accident goes a little further than you might expect. Assessing blame can be a challenge, particularly where the law is concerned.
Security camera footage screenshot
Mervin Bettis walked into a Tampa Bay-area Target in 2012, and stole $1,100 worth of merchandise. He might have expected to be caught and charged with shoplifting, after he was tackled in a confrontation with store security guards. What shocked everyone, however, was in the heat of the chase, a 65-year old store employee, Russell Horner, suffered a heart attack and died trying to stop the crime.
Because his actions prompted Horner's death, Bettis was charged with third-degree felony murder and sentenced to five years in prison earlier this year.
When it comes to dealing with trespassers and the liability, landowners can put up signs and fences to discourage anyone from knowingly or accidentally intruding on their property. Should anyone cross into private property without permission, however, an owner still has a minimal obligation to ensure that person isn't injured on their land, or they could be held liable.
If there are dangerous conditions on the property, they can't be concealed, and must be labeled with some kind of warning if they aren't apparent. Further, if a property has what is known as an "attractive nuisance," such as a swimming pool that can draw in small children unaware of the danger, precautions must be taken.
These might seem like simple enough rules for owners to follow, but like all things legal, subject to interpretation. For example, in 2008, Queens resident Brian Hopkins sued Amtrak for failing to protect trespassers from high-voltage wires. After a night of bar-hopping in Boston, Hopkins was electrocuted after sneaking into an empty train station and climbing on top of a stopped Acela train.
Just as an owner can't create hazards on his land to trap trespassers, so too is a homeowner legally responsible if they create dangers to fend off burglars.
In 1971, Katko v. Briney was brought before the Supreme Court of Iowa. The plaintiff had broken into the domicile of the defendant, who had recently fallen victim to a string of burglaries in his farmhouse. To protect his property, the defendant mounted a spring-loaded shotgun to fire when one of the bedroom doors was open. Upon illegally entering the premises, the plaintiff triggered the gun, was injured in the blast and successfully sued for damages.
When asked if there was anything he would have done changed if he could rewrite history, the defendant replied, "There's one thing I'd do different, though. I'd have aimed that gun a few feet higher."
In what was described as a "tragically bizarre" case, the family of a man who was struck and killed by a speeding train suffered another blow when a bystander injured by an airborne body part sued for damages.
Hiroyuki Joho rushed to catch a train in 2008 in Chicago, when an Amtrak train moving at 70 miles-per-hour hit him. Fifty-eight-year-old Gayane Zokhrabov was struck by flying pieces of Joho, causing injury to her leg, wrist and shoulder.
Although Zokhrabov's was initially dismissed, a state appeals court allowed the case to move forward. Joho's mother filed her own suit against Metra and the Canadian Pacific Railway, but that dismissed the case, claiming the railroad company is under no obligation to warn passengers of "open and obvious danger" like a speeding train.
Riding to the rescue to a stranger in need might not be the best idea if you end up exacerbating the problem. In fact, as there is no legal duty to rescue, getting hit with a negligent rescue suit could end up costing a lot more.
In 2004, a Los Angeles woman, Lisa Torti, rescued her friend from what she described as a smoking car wreck. Fear of a possible explosion led Torti to yank her friend "like a rag doll" to safety before rescuers arrived. In the aftermath of the crash, the friend became paralyzed and sued Torti years later.
Some states, however, do have "Good Samaritan" laws to absolve well-meaning strangers of legal liability when they attempt to save someone in good faith.
As with the texting and driving civil case above, dram shop laws aim to expand liability for cases such as drunk driving to include not only the driver, but also the vendor that served up the booze.
In one example of this kind of liability law in action, in 1999 a young girl, Antonia Verni, became paralyzed after a drunk driver struck her on his way home from a football game. The family of the girl sued Aramark Corp., the Giants Stadium beer vendor, for continuing to serve Daniel Lanzaro, who testified he drank the equivalent of 16 beers before the crash.
Following the suit, the family received a $135-million award, with the court finding that Aramark repeatedly violated their alcohol serving policy.
Until 2005, car rental companies and auto dealers leasing out cars could have potentially faced civil lawsuit over accidents caused by renters or lessees or their vehicles.