- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

More companies are restricting the use of cell phones by employees while on the road, both to prevent injury and limit corporate liability stemming from vehicular accidents.
"We're starting to see employers take a closer look at their policies," said Dave Golden, director of commercial lines for the Illinois-based National Association of Independent Insurers, which represents property and casualty insurers.
"The concern is they might be sued directly," Mr. Golden said.
The father of Naeun Yoon filed a $30 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Jane Wagner and her former employer, Palo Alto, Calif., law firm Cooley Godward. In the lawsuit filed on June 14, the father of the 15-year-old girl said Mrs. Wagner made business calls from her car around the time of the wreck.
Mrs. Wagner pleaded guilty in criminal court to failing to stop after an accident and had four years of a five-year sentence suspended.
The legal issue is whether companies expose themselves to liability when employees get in an accident while making work-related calls, said Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, a legal newspaper based in Boston.
"That is the question that will be going to juries," Mr. Harrison said. "A lot of employers are afraid they can get socked by juries."
A few companies have prohibited cell-phone use among mobile workers, who have increasingly turned their cars into offices.
Wilkes Artis, a D.C.-based law firm, in July banned employees from making cell-phone calls while driving unless they use a hands-free device.
"We were just taking the prudent approach," said David Fuss, a partner at the firm.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. warns its employees to use cell phones only after pulling off the road, but it has stopped short of banning employee cell-phone use in cars.
General Motors Corp. is expected later this month to introduce a new cell-phone-use policy for its employees. "One is imminent. It speaks to our overall approach to employee health and safety," GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said.
Mobile-phone operator Verizon Wireless said its employees must use hands-free devices when making cell-phone calls while driving.
But hands-free devices for cell phones do not significantly reduce driver distraction, according to a study released last month by researchers from the University of Utah.
Cooley Godward, if found liable in Miss Yoon's death, won't be the first employer to pay for a worker's actions. Some employers have paid large settlements after wrecks caused by workers using cell phones.
Salomon Smith Barney in 1999 paid $500,000 to settle a lawsuit when one of its brokers ran a red light and killed a motorcyclist while picking up a cell phone. The firm didn't supply the phone, but rather than risk paying a larger settlement, the company agreed to make the payment without admitting guilt.
The state of Hawaii on July 9 agreed to pay $1.5 million to a New Jersey man struck in 1996 by a teacher while crossing a highway. The teacher admitted to using a cell phone seconds before striking the man, who has brain damage as a result of the crash.
Like employers, state governments are slowly adopting restrictions. Lawmakers in 43 states this year have proposed 140 bills to regulate cell-phone use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. So far, New York is the only state to prohibit drivers from talking on phones while driving.
More than 110 million Americans own cell phones. About 54 percent have phones in their automobiles, and 73 percent of those use the phones while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
A study in May by the University of North Carolina's highway safety research center found that adjusting a car radio or putting a compact disc in a car stereo is responsible for 11.4 percent of wrecks, while using a cell phone is responsible for 1.5 percent of wrecks.
The D.C.-based Network of Employers for Traffic Safety encourages companies to educate workers on the dangers of distracted driving from eating to using a cell phone to reading a map.
"It is surprising how many companies don't have distracted-driver policies," said Kathy Lusby-Treber, executive director of the nonprofit organization.
Each traffic wreck by a worker costs an employer an average of $24,000 in health insurance costs, worker compensation, loss of productivity, property damage and administrative costs, said the NHTSA.


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