Businesses that allow their employees to make work-related phone calls while driving could be held liable if the distraction leads to an accident, according to a May 11 report in the Riverside Press-Enterprise. This fact may already be common knowledge to a majority of businesses. Yet the report says that a majority of Inland Southern California companies don't have a policy that bans cell use for company business while driving. Many settle for a "be careful" admonishment. Richard Roth, an employment law attorney for the Riverside firm Carney & Delany, told the Press-Enterprise he's never seen a no-phone policy in any Inland company's employee handbook. Riverside-based attorney Geoffrey Hopper said at least half of the Inland firms he counsels include some sort of policy in their employee handbooks. But some order employees to use a no-hands device or to "use extreme caution," as opposed to an outright ban. A National Highway Transportation Safety Board survey says that more motorists than ever are using their phones while driving. An estimated 1.2 million drivers, or 8 percent, were on the phone during any given daylight minute. That's up from 6 percent in 2002 and 4 percent in 2000. Of that 1.2 million in 2004, some 800,000 were using handsets. However Ross says it’s often the distraction, not the manipulation of the phone that causes accidents. Under vicarious liability laws, the employer could be liable if the person behind the wheel causes an accident while acting within the scope of his or her employment. Some vicarious liability cases: In Pennsylvania, a Smith Barney stockbroker hit and killed a motorcyclist while making sales pitches on the phone. The accident occurred after work hours, but Smith Barney settled for $500,000 because the company encouraged these off-hours cold calls and had never given employees any training about working while driving. In Virginia, a law firm was sued for $30 million after a 15-year-old girl walking along a rural road at night was struck and killed by a lawyer who was talking to her home office. The case eventually was settled for an undisclosed amount. Manufacturer Dykes Industries lost a $20.9 million personal injury suit when a Little Rock, Ark., employee on a weekend fishing trip called a colleague to remind him a Monday meeting has been cancelled. Phone records revealed the accident, which injured several people, happened at the exact moment the call was in process.
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