NU Online News Service, Jan. 25, 3:56 p.m. EST

Employers face a risk of being held vicariously liable if they permit employees to use company-owned cellular phones or mobile devices while driving, an insurer warned.

An announcement from risk prevention specialists at Zurich Services Corp. mentioned that since 2001, a growing number of jury awards have illustrated businesses could be forced to pay the price for employees’ distracted driving.

Zurich put out its advisory noting that Wisconsin was becoming the 20th state to ban texting.

Jim Noble, Zurich’s line of business director-motor fleet, said, “Not only have businesses put people at risk over their laissez-faire attitude toward technology usage in their workplaces–in most cases, they encourage it if it means increased productivity–but companies themselves, large and small, are now threatened if suddenly they’re faced with a hefty lawsuit caused by an employee’s negligence with an electronic device.”

Zurich recommends “a prudent practice for every company to consider is developing an electronics usage policy and implementing it uniformly to help proactively manage this risk in their operations where physical exposures exist,” said A.V. Riswadkar, Zurich product liability director.

The insurer-suggested guidelines for creating an electronic usage policy include:

o Restricting use of all types of technologies (cell phone, BlackBerry, laptop, MP3 player) in the company distracted driving policy.

o Prohibiting use of non-work-related technology gadgets in non-office work areas to help minimize distractions and other safety-related hazards.

o Enforcing rules consistently and fairly with all employees.

“While electronics usage policies by themselves do not guarantee success in preventing risks associated with distracted driving, they may help reduce exposure and, more importantly, send a clear safety message to employees,” said Zurich.