The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that circumstantial evidence may be sufficient to prove civil violations in fatal distracted driving accidents. The ruling states that direct evidence of what activity distracted the driver is not necessarily a prerequisite for finding a civil violation.
The court’s decision comes at a time when accidents involving distracted drivers are on the rise. In April, the Portland Press Herald published a story titled ‘Is everyone texting and driving now?’. According to state data, last year approximately 750 drivers who got into crashes on Maine roads were found to have been texting or talking on their cell phones at the time of the accident.
Law enforcement officials said that the figures don’t accurately reflect the extent of the problem. They pointed out that distracted drivers can be seen everywhere, heads bowed as they scan their phones, GPS devices, and other electronics.
State of Maine vs. Thomas E. Palmer
The case reviewed by the state’s highest court arose from a 2015 multi-vehicle accident that left one person dead. On August 13, 2015, at around 4:30 p.m., truck driver Thomas Palmer was driving north on Route One in Woolwich when a car ahead of him activated the turn signal and slowed down in preparation for turning left. The car’s driver, who could not turn due to southbound traffic volume, looked in his rearview mirror and saw Palmer’s truck approaching at full speed.
Palmer did swerve at the last second, but not before pushing the car into the opposite lane, where it crashed into a van. A passenger in the van was killed when it spun into the northbound lane and struck a sport utility vehicle.
When interviewed by investigators, Palmer said he “looked up” and saw the car in front of him, but could not swerve away in time. He was cited for the traffic infraction of failure to maintain control of his vehicle and was also charged with a motor vehicle violation resulting in death.
The Distracted Driving Ruling
At the ensuing bench trial, the judge found that Palmer was distracted at the time of the accident. The specific nature of the distraction was not articulated by the court and neither side requested specific findings.
The court imposed a $119 fine for the traffic infraction and a $2,500 fine for the civil violation. The court suspended his driver’s license for two years.
Palmer appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred by not requiring the state to identify and prove the activity that caused the distraction. The justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.
29-A M.R.S. A.§ 2118(2)(B) defines the operation of a motor vehicle while distracted as engaging in an activity:
- Not necessary to operation of the vehicle AND
- That impairs, or would reasonably be expected to impair, the ability to drive safely.
Noting that Palmer himself said he “looked up” (suggesting that his eyes were not on the road ahead), the justices affirmed the trial court’s verdict, stating that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to support an inference that Palmer was distracted at the time of the crash.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Many advocates of safer driving practices have applauded the decision because prosecutors do not necessarily need direct proof that someone was in the act of texting, or was in the act of talking on the phone, or was engaging in some other specific activity not necessary to operation of the vehicle.
Circumstantial evidence may be enough in some cases to prove a civil violation.
If you are injured by a distracted driver in Maine, contact Fales & Fales, P.A. We have a successful history of holding parties responsible for their negligence. We will work to get you the compensation you need to recover and rebuild after the accident.
Distracted Driving: When You Need a Personal Injury Lawyer
Personal Injury Caused by a Distracted Driver
In any personal injury lawsuit, the details of the accident will be carefully examined. If the driver who caused your injuries is proved to have been texting or using a cell phone at the time of the accident, that person is more likely to be at fault. You will have a better chance of winning your personal injury lawsuit if it is determined that the other driver was driving while distracted.
What Constitutes Distracted Driving?
The most common form of distracted driving is the use of cell phones while driving, but distracted driving doesn’t stop there. Distraction involves taking your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, or your mind off of driving. Distractions can occur when you are looking at billboards, checking out an accident scene, eating, drinking, talking with passengers, reading maps or engaging in personal grooming. It’s important to stay focused on driving and on the road ahead.
Taking Care of Your Injuries
If you are injured in an accident, it is important to document your injuries and seek medical treatment when you need it. If possible, take pictures of your injuries. Once you seek medical attention, follow through with every recommendation. Following doctors’ orders shows that you are serious about getting better and that your injuries are real. The better you are at keeping medical appointments and following advice from your treatment providers, the stronger the medical evidence of your injuries will be.
Just Drive New England – Without Distractions
The number of deaths caused by distracted driving has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2015 alone there were 391,000 injuries and 3,477 fatalities attributed to drivers who engaged in activities that impaired their attention long enough for tragedy to strike.
Distracted driving can take several forms, including:
- Using a mobile device to talk, text, or email
- Adjusting the radio to a different station
- Applying makeup
- Talking to passengers
Concerned about the dangerous impact of distracted driving, the Maine Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Highway Safety collaborated with other New England states last April to launch the first coordinated regional awareness campaign.
Just Drive New England
Just Drive New England, which ran for the entire month of April as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, emphasized the importance of paying attention behind the wheel. Campaign highlights included a television ad featuring law enforcement personnel from each participating state talking about the often-fatal aftermath of driver inattention.
The Maine Transportation Safety Commission and the Maine Department of Transportation released figures to illustrate the impact of distracted driving throughout the state. The more alarming numbers included:
- Since 2003, distracted driving has caused over 20,000 crashes in Maine
- 191 of the 3,395 distracted driving collisions in 2016 resulted in fatalities.
- In 2016, in-vehicle distractions like putting on makeup and eating and drinking accounted for 1,290 accidents.
- 1,373 of the distracted driving accidents in 2016 were attributable to exterior distractions such as buildings, people, natural elements, and even other traffic accidents.
According to Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, drivers in New England travel from one state to another at a higher rate of frequency than drivers in other regions of the U.S. Just Drive New England offered an opportunity for these states to work together to solve a problem. It also presented a chance to reduce the number of people hurt or killed by distracted drivers.
After the campaign officially ended, the Lewiston Sun-Journal published a letter from Dr. Michael Rifkin titled ‘Make distracted driving in Maine taboo.’ Dr. Rifkin, who was struck by a texting driver over two years ago and forced to endure a long and painful rehabilitation, urged that the goal of Just Drive New England not be abandoned simply because the month was over.
Using Greek mythology to illustrate his point, he explained that sailors once sealed their ears with beeswax to prevent the siren songs from causing them to wreck their ships. “(Today) we have the tools, capacity, and technology to seal off the distractions in our vehicles and prevent traffic deaths (in Maine),” he wrote.
Tips for National Safety Month
June has passed but distracted driving will be a focal point in safety awareness campaigns every coming June . National Safety Month is an annual initiative dedicated to preventing injury and death on the roads, in the workplace, and even in our homes.
Each week targets a specific risk or goal, starting with emergency preparedness during week one and ending with road safety during week four. The ‘driving week’ will cover critical issues like impaired and distracted driving.
The Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Highway Safety offered the following tips for drivers:
- Turn off your phone and put it somewhere inaccessible (e.g., the back seat) before you start driving.
- Advise your friends and family that you won’t be answering their calls or texts while you are on the road.
- If you must make a call or send a text, pull over and park in a safe place first.
- Review maps or start the GPS navigation before you start driving.
- Keep an eye out for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly at night and during times of poor visibility.
- Always wear a seatbelt to reduce the risk of injury in a collision with a distracted driver.
What’s the Bottom Line?
If you or someone close to you are seriously injured by a distracted driver, contact Fales & Fales, P.A. for a case review. We are strong and experienced advocates for car accident victims in Lewiston-Auburn and beyond. We will use our experience and resources to obtain justice for you. We’re here when and where you need us, so please call 1-888-526-9408 today.