Wrongful Death Suit in Utah Texting While Driving Fatality
The family of a Utah boy who was killed in an alleged texting-while-driving accident is suing the driver who hit him for wrongful death. The accused driver, Jeffery Lloyd Bascom, is also facing criminal charges under the state’s distracted driving law.
Thomas LaVelle Clark, 15, was walking along a semi-rural road on the outskirts of the town of Vernal when he was hit from behind by a pickup driven by Bascom, 28. Clark was thrown 40 feet over a ditch and landed near a cow pasture, according to local news reports.
Bascom admitted to police on the scene that he was texting at the time of the accident. Utah makes homicide involving the use of a hand-held wireless communication device while driving a second degree felony, which carries a prison term of up to 15 years.
The Clark accident is far from an isolated incident, unfortunately. According to the National Safety Council, there have already been nearly 100,000 vehicle crashes in the country this year involving cell phone use, or one every 24 seconds. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Association reports that around 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving accidents in 2010. The Association further notes that cell phone users are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash.
States are legislating to catch up with technology, but laws on phone use while driving vary across the country. Ten states plus Washington, D.C., ban handheld phone use by drivers across the board. An additional 29 ban text messaging only.
A Strong Stance
Utah’s distracted driving law was updated last year to ban any cell phone use while driving, with the exception of making a call or using GPS. Violators can be charged with a misdemeanor, with heightened penalties if there is an injury involved. A felony, like in Bascom’s situation, comes into play when there is loss of life.
“Utah has taken a strong stance on this growing problem,” says Anthony C. McMullin of the McMullin Legal Group in St. George, Utah. “Utah’s 2012 amended texting law makes it much easier for prosecutors to successfully charge and convict violators.”
Plaintiffs could potentially bring a wrongful death or personal injury lawsuit regardless of the criminal laws surrounding an accident, but the existence of specific language for distracted driving can make it easier for attorneys to show a driver was at fault. “Utah’s newly amended texting law also has civil implications,” McMullin says. “The new law heightens the responsibility and duty of all drivers when they get behind the wheel. A driver’s duties include keeping one’s vehicle under control, maintaining a proper lookout and obeying the motor vehicle laws of the State of Utah.”
Texting drivers leave a trail of evidence behind them. Police can check a phone at the scene or, barring that, investigators or attorneys can subpoena phone records from the carrier to find out if a driver was sending any messages at the time of an accident, making it likely that they will be held accountable for their actions.
“If a person is texting or otherwise operating a cell phone while driving and that usage results in a motor vehicle accident, it is typically very easy to establish a breach of the driver’s duties,” says the attorney. “Bottom line is if a driver causes an accident while texting, they may not only be charged criminally but will almost certainly be civilly responsible for any injured parties damages.”