If you are the owner of a motor vehicle in certain circumstances you can be held liable for allowing someone else to operate your vehicle. Even if there is no alcohol involved, motor vehicle owners can be held responsible if they allow an unlicensed or habitually bad driver to operate their vehicle. This is known as liability for negligently entrusting a motor vehicle to another person.
To prove a claim for negligently entrusting a motor vehicle to another, the plaintiff must establish the following:
1. The owner allowed the vehicle to be operated by the person;
2. The person was a unlicensed, reckless or incompetent driver;
3. The owner knew or should have know that the person was a unlicensed, reckless or incompetent driver;
4. The driver was negligent on the occasion; and
5. The driver’s negligence caused the accident.
Proof of ownership can be shown by establishing that the person is claiming ownership or possession of the vehicle or by showing that the person is someone who exercises control over the vehicle. Ownership is typically established by the certificate of title to the vehicle or evidence of the owner’s liability insurance covering the vehicle.
To establish control it must be shown that the person had a superior legal right to control the vehicle and not just the right to exercise some control over it. A legal right to control the vehicle may be evidenced by the owner’s consent or a contractual right. However, loaning money to another to purchase a vehicle does not give the creditor the right of control unless the debtor has defaulted under the loan and the creditor had the right to repossess the vehicle.
Entrusting means permitting the driver to use the vehicle and the controlling issue is whether the driver was initially entrusted with the vehicle, not whether the driver was using the vehicle for the original purpose. Implied permission may be inferred by the conduct of the parties when there is a lack of objection signifying consent.
Entrusting a vehicle to a person who does not have a valid driver’s license is negligence per se. On the other hand, a driver’s license is evidence that a person posses the minimum amount of competence and skill to operate a motor vehicle and proof of such, without any other evidence to the contrary, conclusively negates the element the owner knew or should have known the driver was incompetent.
A driver’s recklessness or incompetence is determined at the time of entrustment of the vehicle. The type of conduct necessary to prove recklessness or incompetence is based on the particular facts and circumstances. For example, proof that a driver received multiple citations for driving without insurance is insufficient to establish recklessness or incompetence. However, a driver’s driving record is admissible to prove recklessness or incompetence if the driver has multiple traffic violations or accidents. Furthermore, evidence of a driver’s condition, state or situation at the time of the entrustment is also admissible to prove recklessness or incompetence. This could include evidence that the driver was intoxicated or physically incapacitated or other evidence that shows the driver’s lack of judgment.
To be liable the owner must have known or should have known the driver was incompetent at the time of the entrustment. However, if the driver shows the owner a valid drivers license, the owner is under no further duty to investigate the driver’s history unless there is additional evidence at the time of entrustment that the driver might be incompetent. Also to be liable it must be proven that the driver’s negligence was the cause of the accident and without proof of the driver’s negligence the owner cannot be held liable.
Defenses to negligent entrustment claims are the same as with other ordinary negligence claims such as comparative negligence or unavoidable accident. However, it is not a defense that the driver deviated from the initial scope of the entrustment. The statute of limitations for a negligent entrustment claim is two years.
At the Law Office of Stephen O’Rear we help people who have been injured in automobile accidents.