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The $21-Million Phone Call

Posted: August 1, 2014

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX — Do your drivers enter the U.S.? If yes, do you have a very clear unambiguous policy pertaining to cell-phone use? If yes to that, do you enforce it?

If not, read on.

In early May, Coca-Cola was sued, successfully, for $21 million after one of their sales reps was involved in an accident that injured a 37-year-old woman.

The injured woman’s lawyers convinced a jury that even though Coca Cola does have a cell-phone policy for company drivers, it is “vague and ambiguous.”

Her lawyers also stated that Coca Cola was aware of the dangers of distracted driving but “withheld this information from its employee driver.”

So what do you take away from this?

For one thing, if you employ drivers and they use phones in the U.S.A., you better be ready to fire any driver who breaks the rules.

That is, at least, the opinion of Jim Angel, a Minnetonka, MN-based product manager with PeopleNet. He offered the opinion at a recent PeopleNet Transportation Symposium in Acton, ON.

“$21 million. And that’s not even a death. It’s an injury,” Angel told the audience.

“If you don’t fire that driver and you have a no-tolerance policy in place, you’ll be considered a negligent company.”

Angel also said other road users act like vigilantes and are ready to use their own phones to call the authorities when they see a trucker using his.

Other advice from the $21 million Coke case: How about these three lessons, as blogged by Matt Howard, CEO of ZoomSafer, a mobile phone safety software provider:

1. When it happens to you, the plaintiffs will sue: Thomas J Henry, the lead plaintiff’s attorney said in a press release, “From the time I took the Coca-Cola driver’s testimony and obtained the company’s inadequate cell phone driving policy, I knew we had a corporate giant with a huge safety problem on our hands.” Furthermore, he said, “I hope the verdict sends a message to corporate America that you can’t have employees on a cell phone and endanger the motoring public. ”The lesson is simple: plaintiffs are watching and waiting to sue employers whenever employees crash due to a cell phone related distractions.

2. A written cell phone use policy is not enough: Coca-Cola’s lawyers argued that its company cell phone use policy, which required the use of a hands-free device when operating a motor vehicle, was consistent with, and in fact, exceeded the requirements of Texas law. The plaintiff, however, argued that Coca-Cola’s cell phone policy for its delivery drivers was “vague and ambiguous” and it certainly wasn’t enforced in any way. Regardless of whether Coca-Cola’s policy was well-documented or not, empirical evidence shows that many employee drivers flout written policies. The bottom line is that written policies alone are not sufficient to change employee driving behavior, and therefore are not sufficient to protect employers from risk and liability.

3. Policy enforcement is critical: Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that every single one of Coke’s drivers fully understood that the company required hands-free use of mobile devices while driving. The critical question remains: “What, if anything, did Coke do to measure and manage compliance with its cell phone use policy policy?” If the answer is “nothing”, the case law clearly shows that employers should expect to be held accountable for damages that occur when employees drive distracted.

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