Whenever a traffic collision occurs in the Tampa Bay area, the important legal question for a Tampa personal injury lawyer is determining which party was responsible. Usually, if one of the motorists did not drive with reasonable caution and care, that motorist will be found liable. However, as you may or may not know, legal responsibility for an accident may be assigned to a person who wasn’t driving, and sometimes, to a person who wasn’t even there. Could you be held liable for another person’s injuries in a collision that didn’t involve you? In some cases, the answer might be “yes.”
According to Kimberly Wilson White, the founder and managing shareholder of Wilson Law in Raleigh, North Carolina, “The driver who hits another person’s car is generally the liable party in an accident, but there are some exceptions. If you drive recklessly and force another driver to take evasive action, causing an accident in the process, you may be held responsible. In some states, owners of bars and restaurants are liable if their establishment over-serves a customer who drives drunk and causes an accident.”
It may seem strange, but there are a number of situations where a third person might be legally liable for personal injuries suffered in a traffic crash. Mark Lamber, a partner at the personal injury firm Lamber Goodnow, says, “From my experience, there are three main instances where you may indeed be liable for another person’s driving:
- Family purpose doctrine: A family vehicle is provided by the head of the household to a child to perform a family purpose – think kids home from college or for the holidays.
- Vicarious liability: A business can be liable for the negligent driving of an employee who is driving in the course and scope of employments – even if the employee is in his/her own vehicle.
- Negligent consent: If you lend your vehicle to someone you know or should know is a dangerous driver, you can be held responsible if they cause a collision.”
DO YOU LET YOUR TEENAGER DRIVE YOUR VEHICLE?
When parents let their teenagers borrow and drive the car, most states hold the parents accountable for any negligent, careless, or reckless driving. Under the “family purpose” legal doctrine in some states, when one family member purchases a car or truck for use by everyone in the family, the legal owner of the vehicle is responsible for any careless driving by anyone in the family. California personal injury lawyer Michael Rehm says, “Your children are an extension of you, in more ways than one. [For example] in California, parents are jointly liable for the acts of their children in regards to driving a vehicle in two circumstances:
- The parent signed and verified the application for the minors driving license (Vehicle Code 17707) or
- The parents gave express or implied permission for their minor to drive their vehicle, whether the minor is licensed or not. (Vehicle Code 17708).”
DO YOU LET ACQUAINTANCES OR FRIENDS DRIVE YOUR VEHICLE?
Attorney Rehm adds that, “Other situations where you can be personally liable for another person’s driving include:
- When your employee is driving for employment related duties; or
- What is referred to as negligent entrustment: when one lends their car to an incompetent or unfit driver, and the person was aware that the driver was incompetent or unfit, for example if someone were to lend their vehicle to an obviously intoxicated person.
The owner of a vehicle is responsible in most states if he or she loans a vehicle to anyone whose negligence behind the wheel of that vehicle results in property damages or personal injuries. In the state of Washington, according to Justin Elsner, the managing attorney at Elsner Law Firm, “if you don’t have insurance and someone causes an accident in your vehicle your driver’s license can get suspended if you don’t pay the damages of the injured person. Additionally, a claim will likely be filed against your insurance if you have it.” Just handing your keys to someone, in fact, makes you legally accountable if that person drives your vehicle in a negligent manner.
DO YOU OWN A BUSINESS WITH COMPANY VEHICLES?
Employers can be held accountable for negligence, including negligent driving, when the negligence is committed by an employee in the course of his or her job duties. If someone’s employee drives into another car or truck while working and operating a company-owned vehicle, the employer is typically legally responsible for any damages and injuries the employee causes.
Attorney Justin Elsner mentions several other circumstances where businesses may be held accountable for traffic injuries: “Another example is if you are a business that sells alcohol. The law is called the Dram Shop Law. Most states have a version of this law. It makes a business liable if someone drives a vehicle intoxicated and then causes injury or death. The person must be overserved and visibly intoxicated for there to usually be liability.” Elsner adds that “if you look into product liability situations such as with the Firestone tires, airbags, brakes, etc. then businesses can be liable for their negligence.”
WHAT IS NEGLIGENT ENTRUSTMENT?
A claim for what the law calls “negligent entrustment” arises when one party is held legally accountable for negligently giving a second party a “dangerous instrumentality” with which that second party causes injury to a third party. If the “entrustee” had a reputation or history of becoming dangerous through the possession of such an instrumentality, and if the “entrustor” was or should have been aware of that reputation or history, the entrustor can be liable for damages and injuries.
WHICH DRIVERS ARE INCOMPETENT OR UNFIT?
In a personal injury claim arising from a traffic collision, a plaintiff must prove that the vehicle’s owner knew or should have known that the driver was incompetent or unfit to drive. Florida courts have consistently found that a vehicle owner who negligently entrusts his or her personal or business vehicle to an incompetent or unfit driver is liable for damages flowing from the negligence that driver. Before you hire someone as a driver or hand over the keys to your personal vehicle to anyone, you should know that legal trouble is quite possible if you give permission to drive to any of these drivers:
- Convicted reckless drivers: If someone has been found guilty of speeding, careless or reckless driving, or DUI – especially more than once in the previous few years – think twice before giving that person permission to drive. If you know that somebody is a risky driver and you give that driver your keys, you’ll be guilty of negligent entrustment and liable for damages.
- Drivers who are elderly: Declining vision and hearing, longer reaction times, and chronic fatigue typically accompany advanced aging. Additionally, many elderly people are required to take medications that may impair their ability to drive. Just as some people are too young to drive, the sad truth is that some people are also just too elderly to be trusted to drive safely.
- Injured and sick drivers: When someone is sick or injured and wants to drive your vehicle, you must consider not only the illness or injury but also the medication or treatment. Unless the situation is a genuinely out-of-the-ordinary emergency, just say no to letting a sick or injured driver behind the wheel of your car or truck.
- Intoxicated drivers: Anyone currently on probation or parole or recently convicted of a drug crime or alcohol-related charge should never be allowed to drive your vehicle. Even without a criminal conviction or clear evidence of drug or alcohol abuse, if you suspect that someone may drive your vehicle while intoxicated, “go with your gut” and just say no.
- Inexperienced and unlicensed drivers: Never allow an unlicensed driver to drive. A minor with a learner’s permit may drive only with adult supervision. And if you give your keys to a minor who’s too young to obtain even a learner’s permit, a Florida court will almost inevitably find you guilty of negligent entrustment – and liable for any damages.
HOW CAN EMPLOYERS PROTECT THEMSELVES?
Whether a business owns one delivery van or a fleet of buses or trucks, that business can never accept negligent or careless drivers or driving. Every accident that happens in the United States while one of the drivers is working costs the employer – on average – over $16,000, and when someone is injured, that cost increases to almost $75,000. When all of the losses are totaled up, traffic collisions cost businesses in the United States an estimated $60 billion a year.
Clearly, employers must be careful about hiring for driving jobs and proactive about safe driving. AAA®, many insurance companies, and other groups in the community offer abundant resources and advice to employers and even conduct workshops, seminars, and safe driving refresher courses. Companies that hire a number of drivers on a continuing basis must implement and enforce safe driving programs, policies, and procedures.
Most parents of teenagers have heard this before, but it bears repeating: Talk with your teens about intoxicated and distracted driving. They need to know in no uncertain terms that no cell phones, video games, horseplay, beer, pot, or other intoxicants or distractions are allowed while driving, and there are no exceptions. With passengers, many young drivers tend to be too easily distracted. “I’ve never seen the situation,” says Washington attorney Justin Elsner, “but if you had a scenario when someone was distracting the driver, i.e. putting your hands over their face, etc., that passenger could be liable for causing an accident.”
WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
What’s the bottom line for employers, parent’s and the average automobile owner? Travis Biggert, a Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC), Certified Risk Manager (CRM), and the 2015 Risk and Insurance Magazine Broker of the Year summarizes the issues of third party-liability and negligent entrustment:
“Generally, you are liable for anything you own or when you are directing someone to perform a task in the course and scope of their employment with you. So the primary cases we see are the following:
- Business owns a vehicle and allows an employee to drive it home at night. Employee is found at fault in an accident the company will assume the liability for the damages.
- Amy loans Andy her car to run an errand. Andy misses a light and causes an accident. Amy’s liability insurance is the first to pay up to her policy’s limits, it then converts to Andy’s personal auto insurance policy until you go through those limits. With people carrying as little as $25,000 in liability limits, those can be very easily blown through if the damaged vehicle is a Mercedes, and $25,000 does not last too long when there are hospital bills and lost wages when injured.
- Amy goes to a conference for her job. While at that conference, she rents a vehicle and causes an accident. If someone is injured and a lawsuit is filed, they will always include the company that Amy works for in the suit, and Amy’s company would be covered as long as they carry hired and non-owned auto liability.”
After traffic collisions with injuries in Florida, an experienced Tampa personal injury lawyer can help an injury victim determine which party or parties should be held liable for the injuries. Of course, if you are not a parent – or if your kids are grown – and if you don’t hire drivers, your wisest choice is simply never loaning the keys to your personal vehicle to anyone. If a close friend desperately needs to borrow your vehicle for a legitimate purpose, offer to drive or recommend an alternative. If you do hire drivers or loan out your vehicle, take the keys at once if you even suspect negligent driving.