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Car owner could be liable in DUI injuries

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Patty R. in the North of Panhandle area asks:

Q: "My friend Josh was badly injured in a car wreck. He was a passenger at the time of the crash, sitting in the front. This guy Stevie was driving and he was really loaded at the time. Stevie hit a pole on the side of the road head-on. It was not Stevie's car, as he had borrowed it from his roommate Jack. Josh was badly injured and has tons of medical bills. Stevie doesn't have a job or any money and, anyway, he was arrested for DUI. Jack was at the party and saw how messed up Stevie was. He shouldn't have given Stevie his keys. What can Josh do about this situation?"

A: This is a very unfortunate set of circumstances and I hope Josh has a speedy recovery. This case demonstrates the reason we all need to not only be responsible for our own behavior, but also need to exercise good judgment in preventing others from drinking and driving. This includes never lending a car to someone who is intoxicated.

Almost since the automobile came on to the scene, the courts have been defining the liability of their owners. In 1923, a state appeals court issued a ruling in the case of Rocca v. Steinmetz defining the liability of people for negligently entrusting their vehicles to others. The law starts from the basic principle that we are all responsible for our actions and we must act as reasonable people in the management of our persons and property. That includes our automobiles.

The courts have held that "the owner of an automobile may be rendered liable for injuries inflicted by its operation by one whom he has permitted to drive the same on the ground that such person, by reason of his want of age or experience, or his physical or mental condition, or his known habit of recklessness, is incompetent to safely operate the machine."

An automobile is a machine capable of doing great damage if not carefully handled and, for this reason, the owner must use care in allowing others to assume control over it.

If the owner entrusts it to a child of such tender years that the probable consequence is that he or she will injure others in the operation of the car, or if the person permitted to operate the car is known to be incompetent and incapable of properly running it, although not a child, the owner will be held accountable for the damage done because that negligence in entrusting the car to an incompetent person is deemed to be the proximate cause of the damage.

In such a case of mere permissive use, the liability of the owner would rest not alone upon the fact of ownership, but upon the combined negligence of the owner and the driver — negligence of the owner in entrusting the machine to an incompetent driver, and of the driver in its operation.

In its simplest form, the question is whether owners, when they permit an incompetent or reckless person they know to be incompetent or reckless to take and operate their car, act as an ordinary prudent person would be expected to act under the circumstances. If the owner were to entrust a car to a person known to be insane or intoxicated or utterly incompetent to run a car, it would certainly shock the common understanding to hold that the owner was not chargeable with negligence.

There can be no difference in principle, only in degree, where he or she knows the driver to be careless and reckless in the operation of the machine. In any such case, consideration for the safety of others requires the vehicle owner to withhold consent and thereby refrain from participating in any accident that is liable to happen from careless and reckless driving.

So, Patty, Jack may be liable and therefore responsible for Josh's injuries under this theory of negligent entrustment. Josh's automobile insurance coverage may be available to pay for Josh's damages. Under the law, in addition to his insurance coverage, Jack's individual assets may be vulnerable to any judgment against him. Josh may have any recovery that he would be entitled to because of Jack's negligence reduced by his own comparative fault for getting into a car with Stevie if Josh knew or should have known he was intoxicated (Gonzalez v. Garcia, 1977).

I hope this answers your question. Josh should get advice from a lawyer and all of us should avoid ever having anything to do with a drunken driver whether it is by driving drunk, riding with a drunk or lending our car to someone who may be drunk.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.