Is a Car Owner Responsible After an Auto Accident With a Drunk Driver?

Drunk driving accidents are often fatal or involve serious injuries to other motorists and passengers. Those kinds of injuries bring with them a heavy price tag that many drunk drivers are simply unable to pay. When a lawsuit against an uninsured at-fault motorist won't get you the relief you need, you may find yourself wondering if a car owner is responsible for letting the drunk driver get behind the wheel at all.

Whose Insurance Pays After a Drunk Driving Accident?

In any serious injury accident, the medical costs, lost wages, and other damages can quickly add up to hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. Michigan's No-Fault Act is designed to make sure there is insurance to cover reasonable and necessary medical expenses, as well as 3 years of lost wages and replacement services. But whose policy applies? If a drunk driver is uninsured will you be left paying the bill, or can you file a claim with the car owner's insurance company?

Generally, each person injured in an auto accident turns to his or her own no-fault insurance policy first. Whether you were at fault, the other driver, or even a passenger, you will have to file a claim with your own insurance company before looking elsewhere. However, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians struck by drunk drivers may not have insurance of their own, or in their households. In those cases, they can file claims with either the drunk driver's insurance company, or the car owner's provider to make sure those basic costs are covered.

Third Party Negligence Lawsuits Cover Additional Drunk Driving Damages

In fatal or other serious injury drunk driving cases, the damages often go beyond what is covered under the Michigan No-Fault Act. Pain and suffering, permanent disability, and other forms of compensation are available to seriously injured motorists through a Third Party negligence lawsuit against the at-fault driver. If the driver has insurance, the liability portion of his or her coverage will apply to cover the difference.

But when the drunk driver is a repeat offender or otherwise infrequent driver, he or she may not have insurance, or savings, to cover your costs. When that happens, you may have to bring an action against the car owner under a "negligent entrustment" theory, like in the recently published Court of Appeals decision, Bennett v Russell, Docket # 334859.

Rental Car Supplier Can Be Liable for Negligent Entrustment to a Drunk Driver

Deborah Bennett and Marsha Wilson were injured when Latasha Phillips crashed into their vehicle while trying to complete a turn at an intersection at approximately 8:30 a.m. on November 16, 2013. Phillips was visibly intoxicated, and told police her name was Carrie Russell. In the course of the lawsuit the plaintiffs learned Phillips's real identity, and that she was driving a vehicle rented by Dennis Hogge from Enterprise Rental Car. They asked the court's permission to add both Hogge and Enterprise to the case on the theory of "negligent entrustment".

The theory was that Hogge had let Phillips use the vehicle when he knew or should have known she would do so negligently. Hogge had rented the vehicle from Enterprise at approximately 7:30 a.m., then drove the vehicle home and gave the keys to Latasha. He had not listed her as an additional driver. Latasha did not have a valid driver's license and may have been visibly drunk when Hogge gave her the keys to the vehicle. The plaintiffs said that was enough to support a claim against him as the supplier of the vehicle.

Hogge said that he was not liable because he didn't own the vehicle either. He only rented it from Enterprise. However, the Court of Appeals said that under the common law, all that was necessary to prove negligent entrustment was for a person to supply a piece of personal property (in this case a car) to another person that the supplier knows or has reason to know is likely to create an unreasonable risk of physical harm. Since Hogge rented the vehicle and then supplied it to Phillips, he could be sued for negligent entrustment even if he wasn't the car owner.

Car Ownership, Liability, and Auto Theft

Even in light of Bennett, a car owner isn't automatically responsible for everything that happens with the vehicle. One clear example is auto theft. If a criminal steals a person's car and then gets into an accident, the owner is not responsible for any of it. Even if the injured motorist can't be compensated because the thief escaped or does not have insurance or funds to pay for the injury, the car owner is still protected from liability because he or she did not consent to the use of the vehicle.

The same is true if a car owner has no reason to know the driver will be negligent. For example, if Phillips told Hogge she had a valid license and Hogge hadn't known she was intoxicated when she took the rental car for a drive, Hogge would not be responsible for Phillip's negligent behavior. This comes back to the idea that, generally speaking, each person is only liable for his or her own actions (or the actions of the agents in the case of a company). In Bennett, Hogge wasn't responsible for the drunk driving itself. What the jury would have to decide is whether he was liable for letting Phillips use the vehicle in the first place.

At Sachs Waldman, our experienced personal injury attorneys know when a car owner can be sued in a Third Party negligence lawsuit. If a drunk driver has left you facing serious injury, we will review your case, and your needs, and help recover all the compensation you are entitled to. Contact our Detroit personal injury law office at 1-800-638-6722.

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