Talk isn’t always cheap, as International Paper Co. learned recently when it agreed to pay $5.2 million to settle a personal injury suit related, at least in part, to one of its employees’ use of a cell phone while driving.
An International Paper employee was on her company-supplied cell phone as she drove west on an interstate near Dublin, Ga., when she rear-ended a vehicle. The collision pushed hit car into the ditch on the right side of the road, overturning it so that the driver’s side hit and then slid along the roadway — with the driver’s arm trapped between the door and the asphalt. Medical complications eventually forced the driver, a widowed mother of four, to have her arm amputated almost up to the shoulder.
International Paper contended that the employee was not actually on the phone at the moment the collision occurred, according to McArthur. The employee testified at deposition that she had used the cell phone just prior to getting on the interstate, and the accident occurred nearly two miles later. A witness, however, testified that he had seen her with the phone to her ear at the time of the collision.
Georgia has a cell phone statute that says the driver is not to do things that are distracting, this essentially means reasonable cell phone use is acceptable within the purview of the statute. The widow’s attorney argued that The International Paper employee’s cell phone use was not reasonable, because the employee had set her cruise control at 77 miles per hour — in a 70 mph speed zone.
After a series of negotiations with a variety of outside counsel for International Paper — the company changed law firms three times, McArthur said — and an attempt at mediation, the parties agreed to settle for $5.2 million in mid-December. The case had been set for trial March 17. A spokesperson described the matter as “a very unique case.”
In a similar case, Dykes Industries of Little Rock, Ark., lost a $20.9 million personal injury suit in which its employee was using a cell phone when the accident occurred. In another case, the state of Hawaii agreed to pay $2.5 million as its share of liability in an accident involving a state employee who was allegedly talking on her cell phone when she hit a tourist.
Perhaps the classic example for lawyers involves attorney Jane Wagner of Cooley Godward. In 2000, Wagner was driving home from work and conducting a business call on her cell phone when she struck and killed a 15-year-old girl in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County. She did not stop her car, later saying she thought she had hit a deer.
According to Washington Post reports, Wagner later pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run and served one year in jail; a jury ordered her to pay more than $2 million in damages to the victim’s family. Wagner’s firm, Cooley Godward, settled for an undisclosed amount, according to the Post; the plaintiffs had initially sued for $30 million.
Fifteen states ban or restrict cell phone use by young drivers, and five states and the District of Columbia ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. This year California will join the list. Colorado has considered a variety of restrictions, but nothing has been made law. But Colorado state troopers have begun asking drivers involved in traffic accidents whether they were using cell phones, hoping to determine whether the phones are a threat to public safety.