Distracted Driving leads to $21 million verdict against Coca-Cola
On Friday, a jury in Texas handed down a $21 million verdict against Coca-Cola for damages arising from an August 2010 distracted driving crash involving one of its employees using a mobile phone while driving. The plaintiff, who suffered permanent nerve damage in her back, has not been able to work since the accident in August 2010. Her attorney said that Coca-Cola Refreshments was aware of the danger driving while talking on a cell phone posed, but ignored the danger. The driver of the truck testified that she was using a headset, in accordance with company policy. She contended that had Coke made her more aware of the serious risks involved with talking on a cell phone while driving, she never would have used her phone. The plaintiff stated, "I'm hoping they're going to get those changes, and completely train their drivers on how a cell phone is dangerous," she said.
Coca-Cola Refreshments released a statement after the verdict which read in part: "We have accepted responsibility for the accident. We understand that this verdict is a response to a plea from plaintiff's counsel to the jury to ban all cell phone use while driving." It continues, "Coca-Cola Refreshments' cell phone policy, which requires the use of a hands-free device when operating a motor vehicle, is completely consistent with, and in fact, exceeds the requirements of Texas law." The company plans to appeal the decision.
Here are three important lessons this historic case teaches fleet managers:
1. When it happens to you, the plaintiffs will sue: The lead plaintiff’s attorney was quoted as saying “from the time I took the Coca-Cola driver’s testimony and obtained the company’s inadequate cell phone driving policy, I knew we had a corporate giant with a huge safety problem on our hands.” Furthermore, he said, “I hope the verdict sends a message to corporate America that you can’t have employees on a cell phone and endanger the motoring public.”The lesson is simple: plaintiffs are watching and waiting to sue employers whenever employees crash due to a cell phone related distractions.
2. A written cell phone use policy is not enough: Coca-Cola’s lawyers argued that its company cell phone use policy, which required the use of a hands-free device when operating a motor vehicle, was consistent with, and in fact, exceeded the requirements of Texas law. The plaintiff, however, argued that Coca-Cola’s cell phone policy for its delivery drivers was “vague and ambiguous” and it certainly wasn’t enforced in any way. Regardless of whether Coca-Cola’s policy was well-documented or not, empirical evidence shows that many employee drivers flout written policies. The bottom line is that written policies alone are not sufficient to change employee driving behavior, and therefore are not sufficient to protect employers from risk and liability.
3. Policy enforcement is critical: Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that every single one of Coke’s drivers fully understood that the company required hands-free use of mobile devices while driving. The critical question remains: “What, if anything, did Coke do to measure and manage compliance with its cell phone use policy?” If the answer is “nothing”, the case law clearly shows that employers should expect to be held accountable for damages that occur when employees drive distracted. This isn’t the first multi-million dollar lawsuit resulting from employee mobile phone use while driving – or even the first with a verdict over $20 million. But this case emphasizes just how serious the risk is – and that all employers can be vicariously implicated if they fail to manage and monitor how employees are using mobile devices while driving. Employers who want to minimize liability as much as possible must institute risk management programs to actively or passively enforce cell phone use policies.
Tia Chisholm, HUB International TRANSPORTATION
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