“If it's determined that our truck caused the accident, [the company] will take full responsibility.” These words came from the CEO and President of a Fortune 500 company in response to a recent motor vehicle accident involving a company truck and limo bus in which a well-known comedian and others were passengers. One person died and others were critically injured. There is no indication that the company’s employee driver was distracted by talking or texting on a cell phone, yet the accident’s global attention inflamed the ongoing discussion around an employer’s liability for an employee’s distracted driving. The company CEO’s immediate and definitive willingness to accept responsibility highlights the effect that distracted driving can have on a company’s image and its bottom-line.
The potential impact on an employer for distracted driving can be great. For example, an international beverage company was hit with a $21 million verdict ($11 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages) in Texas in 2012 after one of its drivers caused an accident while using a cell phone behind the wheel. The verdict demonstrated that even though the company had a cell phone policy in place, that policy alone was insufficient as a defense for the negligent acts of a distracted employee. Large companies are obvious targets as juries may feel justified in punishing them for a perceived indifference to driving safety. That said, smaller businesses should not assume that they are immune from similar outcomes. A $21 million verdict has an impact on even a large enterprise, but a similar verdict against a smaller company could spell the end of the business.