My blogs this summer have touched on a recurring theme, how a plaintiff’s contributory negligence can diminish or defeat her case. As the best time of year to be in Chicago comes to a close, I have to bring this discussion full circle with one final observation I see in the great outdoors—the survival instinct is dying. And this evolutionary change will be judged in a courtroom.
You know what I’m talking about, it’s everywhere. Bikers wearing headphones, pedestrians looking at their phones oblivious to their surroundings, drivers texting, no one in the roadway using signals. I admit, I’m a student of the “old school” that taught engaging the human senses as a matter of life and death. “Stop. Look. Listen.” “Look both ways when you cross the street.” This is not just the stuff of Darwin, it’s what we learn in kindergarten. So why are people so willing to render themselves, deaf, dumb and blind and blithely entrust their well-being to the rest of the population?
While this cultural phenomenon did not start with the Smartphone (remember the Walkman?), it has proliferated in that tiny, powerful technological device. Studies have shown accidents due to distraction are on the rise: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2018/02/28/pedestrian-fatalities/376802002/. Those who are so dependent on it, so addicted to it or the magnitude of distraction it provides, that they cannot tear themselves away need to . . . “step away from the phone.”
Illinois law does not allow you to relinquish responsibility for yourself and your own safety; thus the contributory negligence defense. For instance, if you are so busy looking at or talking on your phone that you enter an intersection without looking both ways or obeying a traffic control device, you will likely be found more negligent than the driver who hit you. Your mobile phone is no longer your closest confidante, it is a storage device for potential evidence against you, i.e. the time you sent or read a text, when you were on a call, etc. After being struck on your bicycle in the middle of the street, if you are found wearing earbuds or headphones (the noise-cancelling ones are really just insane), the driver who honked his horn as he was properly approaching when you made a sudden lane change may not be held responsible. All of this means you may not recover for your injuries because you were contributorily negligent.
So here’s my pitch, as a father, not a plaintiff’s attorney: reengage your senses.
STOP! Take in the world around you. LOOK! Use your eyes, not only to protect you from imminent danger, but to see that smiling stranger, carefree dog, or sunset. LISTEN! Use your ears, to hear warning signs or vehicles approaching, and the talented street musician, or old friend calling from across the street or train platform. I would be happy knowing you took this advice so you never needed my legal advice.