Thursday, April 03, 2008

Workers on cell phones cost their companies big bucks in wrecks

The cost of cell phone while driving at work ...

"Vanessa McGrogan never noticed the car ahead of her own speeding vehicle until it was too late. Jeffrey Stasium didn't see the auto crossing the intersection until his pickup truck slammed into the driver's door.

The crashes, separated by three years and 160 miles, had two things in common. Both drivers were distracted by their cellphone use, according to lawsuits filed against them. And their employers wrote big checks in recent months to settle those suits in Fulton County.

Cellphones have spurred fantastic advances in business productivity and employee availability, allowing workers and bosses to stay in constant contact. A 2007 study says three-quarters of Americans use cellphones while driving. And a good percentage of them are surely doing company business.

But for all the work-related benefits, the devices also allow personal-injury attorneys to reach into companies' deep pockets.

In December, McGrogan's employer, International Paper, agreed to pay $5.2 million to settle an accident in which a woman's car was forced off the road and her arm was later amputated. In February, Modern Continental Construction Co. agreed to pay $750,000 to a woman whose car was struck by Stasium. A jury was deliberating at the time.

Recent settlements such as these and other big-money cases nationwide have caused companies to move to protect themselves from financial liability. With increasing frequency, businesses are mandating that workers not use cellphones when driving or at least employ hands-free sets.

"Sophisticated employers are saying, 'We need a policy,' " said Atlanta attorney Stephen Schatz, who defended Modern Continental. "In Georgia, if you're going to or from work [and you crash], your employer is not liable. But if you're using the phone for business purposes — even with your own phone — [the business] can be held liable."

Last year, the Georgia Appeals Court overturned a Fulton judge who threw out the suit against Modern Continental. The appeals court, citing a 2003 ruling, said it was up to a jury to determine whether Stasium was on the phone at the time of the crash and whether his call was work-related.

In 2003, the appeals court ruled a company could be held liable if a "servant was at the time serving his master" via cellphone when a crash occurred.

"The question is whether you're doing the employer's business [on the cellphone]," said H.J.A. Alexander, attorney for Pamela Hunter, a hair stylist seriously injured in the crash with Stasium.

Modern Continental argued it was not liable because Stasium, a company supervisor, was in his own truck, on his own cellphone and not on the clock when he got a call from a co-worker and later hit redial. But what a jury might decide in cases like this worries companies, causing many to settle."    (Continued via ajc.com)    [Ergonomics Resources]

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