A person who is injured in an automobile accident may seek to recover for his injuries against one or more parties, including the driver or the owner of the automobile that caused the accident. This article addresses the parties who are potentially liable for an injured party’s injuries arising from an automobile accident.
A driver of an automobile that is involved in an accident is principally liable for his own negligence. Some courts presume in the absence of contrary evidence that the owner of the automobile was driving the car at the time of the accident.
An owner generally is not liable for the torts of a person who drives the owner’s automobile. However, there are exceptions to this general rule.
An owner may be liable for the torts of a driver who drives his automobile because of a statute that provides for such liability. In most jurisdictions, the owner will be liable for the driver’s negligence only if the owner gave his consent for the driver to drive the automobile. Consent may usually be presumed unless the owner proves otherwise, and it may be express or implied. The fact that the owner consented to the driver taking the automobile in the past may support an inference of consent with regard to the taking of the automobile at the time the accident occurred.
An owner who negligently entrusts his car to a driver may be liable if the driver causes an accident. Negligent entrustment occurs when the owner, with knowledge that the driver is not qualified to drive, consents to allowing the driver to drive his automobile. The driver’s lack of qualification could arise if he is incompetent, underage, or intoxicated.
Owner is a passenger
An owner may be liable for the torts of a driver if the owner is a passenger in his own automobile. If the owner has the opportunity to control the driver, he may be liable if he fails to complain to the driver regarding any negligent driving or to take other action to prevent the driver from driving in such a manner. The owner’s liability will be for the torts that proximately flow from his failure to act.
Liability may be imposed on an owner if his agent drives his automobile and causes an accident. The typical agency liability situation arises when an employee drives an employer’s automobile. The owner will only be liable, however, if the driver had the owner’s permission to drive the automobile.
Family purpose doctrine
In some jurisdictions, the “family purpose” doctrine may impose liability on an owner who allows a family member to drive a family car and subsequently causes an accident. Generally, the owner will only be liable if the automobile involved in the accident was purchased and used as the family car, if the driver lived in the family home, and if the owner consented to the driver’s use of the family car.
Joint and several liability
If an injured party is involved in an accident caused by two or more drivers, the theory of joint and several liability enables the injured party to sue one driver or owner individually or to join all the drivers or owners in one lawsuit.