SACRAMENTO, CA --- When California's new law banning driver use of handheld cellphones goes into effect July 1, motorists who ignore the law and cause an accident may face major civil judgments or even jail if the crash proves fatal, according to legal experts. What's at stake is much more than just the $20 fine.
"If you cause a fatal accident and you are running a stop sign, speeding or crossing a double line, any additional violation would add to the possibility a manslaughter charge could be filed," W. Scott Thorpe, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Association, told the Los Angeles Times. "It all goes to state of mind and your recklessness."
Though a cellphone violation during a fatal car collision alone may not justify a felony charge, it could prompt a misdemeanor manslaughter charge, Thorpe told the Times. Conviction on such a charge can result in up to a year of jail time for each death.
Some experts predict even stricter outcomes for offenders.
"If somebody kills three kids in an intersection and they were on a cellphone at the time, I can see the driver being charged with a felony," Stanley A. Goldman, a law professor at Los Angeles-based Loyola Law School, told the Times.
Insurance industry attorneys acknowledge that the new law will increase their clients' exposure.
"Violations of a safety law would be powerful evidence of liability," David Snyder, vice president and assistant general counsel of the American Insurance Association, told the Times. "You could draw an analogy to drunk-driving laws or the speed limit."
Though New York is one of the states that already has a similar law, experts say that the law's effect on civil and criminal liability is still unclear. That impact still needs to be studied.