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What if someone is driving my car and causes an accident?

November 14, 2013 by Steven M. Gursten

Auto attorney explains owner’s liability, and what happens when another person causes a car accident while driving your car

What is owner’s liability, and what happens when someone else is driving my car and causes an accident?

This is the question I was asked by a CNN Money reporter, for a story on the issue: Am I liable is my sons cause an accident?

Hopefully this post will help drivers understand this common question.

In many states, the titled owner of a motor vehicle can still be sued and can still be financially liable for personal injuries and economic loss caused by a driver of their car if that driver causes an accident — even though the titled owner is not driving at the time of the car accident and did nothing to cause it.

This is often based upon statutes which commonly impose liability based on ownership, even if the owner did nothing wrong but let someone else get behind the wheel of her car. In states without owner’s liability statutes, the owner can still be sued in a personal injury lawsuit if it can be shown the owner was negligent in letting the driver operate his or her car.

Why impose liability on the owner of a motor vehicle when he or she is not the driver of the car that causes an accident?

There are important public policy reasons for doing this:

  1. States want to make sure there is insurance coverage, and the the vehicle’s owner is more likely to have insurance than the driver.
  2. States want to make sure an owner is prudent and careful and that he or she doesn’t lend the vehicle to someone who is unsafe driver. By imposing liability on the owner as well, the owner will be more careful in who he or she lets borrow the car.

Imposing liability on car owners when others drive cars may sound at first unfair, but they laws actually protect all of us on the roads. Liability can be based upon the ownership liability statute, where there is strict liability for the owner, unless there are very specific exceptions.

“Vicarious liability” and “negligent entrustment” to an unsafe driver

When a car owner lets another person drive a car, most states will treat the car owner as sharing liability for any car accident caused by the person borrowing the car.
The car owner’s liability may be predicated on statute, like owners liability; or on common law principles such as “negligent entrustment,” or “vicarious liability.” This is where person driving car is considered an “agent” of the owner.

Owner’s liability usually involves the use of a vehicle with permission. Depending upon state law, a member of the owner’s household may be presumed to be driving with the owner’s permission in the event of a car crash.

Owner’s liability doesn’t usually extend to non-permissive uses of a car, although an “owner’s negligence” may sometimes cause liability to follow. This can occur even in situations where a car is stolen. For instance, some jurisdictions will hold an owner liable if the owner leaves the keys in the ignition, and her car is stolen and then involved in a crash.

One final word of caution. Many otherwise experienced personal injury lawyers miss that immunity may apply where the vehicle owner is a government agency.

This can be a very confusing issue and as I said above, laws vary by state. Feel free to call Michigan Auto Law for free advice from one of our lawyers.

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