Employer Liability in Distracted Driving

By 2000, two-thirds of the U.S. population had a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Center; this number has risen dramatically to 96% today. Near the turn of the century, cell phones such as the BlackBerry and Nokia were wildly popular. They quickly became a necessity, infiltrating both personal life and the workplace.

Phones posed a new danger to drivers and pedestrians. Using a cell phone while driving creates far more potential for distracted driving, which today claims almost 3,000 lives annually, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. Just like with most innovations, legislation lagged behind the complications created by cell phones. The tragic Naeun Yoon case pushed both lawmakers and company policymakers to restrict cell phone use behind the wheel. 

Peter Grenier, who represented the Yoon family in this landmark case, called attention to the broader implications of this case: the vicarious liability of employers for their employees’ negligent cell phone use while driving. This landmark case established employer liability in distracted driving and encouraged the introduction of state legislation. Soon after the settlement, New York became the first state to ban the use of cell phones while driving, prompting other states to follow suit. 

The case led to the implementation of stricter cell phone policies by employers. In fact, on the heels of the Yoon case, General Motors implemented a company-wide ban on the use of cell phones for business purposes while driving. 

On March 8, 2000, 15-year-old Naeun Yoon was tragically struck and killed in a hit-and-run by attorney Jane L. Wagner. Yoon, a recent Korean immigrant, was walking along the side of Route 7 near Great Falls when Wagner hit her.  Wagner, who did not stop, was reported to have been using her cell phone at the time for a business-related call – and several eyewitnesses detailed her erratic weaving and lane-changing leading up to the incident.   

In addition to naming Wagner as a defendant, Grenier also named Wagner’s law firm, Cooley Godward LLP, as a defendant, asserting that the law firm was vicariously liable because Wagner was on a business call when she struck Ms. Yoon. Cooley Godward settled the $30M lawsuit for an undisclosed sum prior to trial. 

Grenier proceeded to trial against Wagner on behalf of Yoon’s family in Loudoun County, Virginia Circuit Court. Circuit Judge Burke F. McCahill found Wagner liable for Yoon’s death, and the jury awarded more than $2 million to the Yoon family. Wagner also pleaded guilty to hit-and-run, served a year in jail, and forfeited her law license.

The Washingtonian reported on Yoon’s case in May 2001.