Suing a Vehicle Owner for Damages
In Pennsylvania, if you have suffered injuries in a car accident in which the defendant-driver was operating a vehicle that was not their own, then you may not only have a legitimate claim for damages against the driver, but you may also have a claim against the owner of the vehicle pursuant to the theory of negligent entrustment.
Negligent entrustment imposes liability on vehicle owners for permitting a person — who they know (or should know) is unfit to drive — to use their vehicle. This is separate and independent from vicarious liability, which imposes liability on employers for the negligence committed by their employees.
For example, if you are injured in a car accident by an intoxicated pizza delivery driver employee, then you might be entitled to bring a claim against the employer under vicarious liability and separately for negligently entrusting the company vehicle to the driver despite being aware of the intoxicated status of the driver-employee.
Same as with vicarious liability claims, legitimate negligent entrustment claims are a strategic boon of sorts in that they enable you — the injured plaintiff — to “spread liability” across multiple parties, particularly those who may have the insurance coverage or personal assets necessary to adequately cover your damages.
Negligent entrustment claims are fairly straightforward, though it can be something of a challenge to prove each necessary element to the claim. For now, let’s explore some of the basics.
Elements of a Pennsylvania Negligent Entrustment Claim
Negligent entrustment claims in Pennsylvania require that you prove:
- The driver was negligent in their operation of the vehicle at-issue;
- The driver was unfit to drive the vehicle at the time, and that unfitness was a substantial factor in contributing to the harm caused to the injured plaintiff;
- The defendant owned the vehicle at-issue;
- The defendant gave permission to the driver to drive the vehicle; and
- The defendant knew or reasonably should have known about the driver’s unfitness to use the vehicle.
Those are a lot of different elements to satisfy. Fortunately, it’s all fairly simple if you break it down into more logical chunks.
Successful negligent entrustment claims require a motor vehicle accident in which the negligence of the driver was a substantial factor in causing the injury. Then, the plaintiff need only show that the defendant vehicle owner was aware of the driver’s unfitness, but permitted them to use the vehicle anyways.
Knowledge, Incompetence, and Permission — Establishing Liability
There are three primary points of conflict in a negligent entrustment dispute: knowledge, incompetence (or unfitness), and permission.
Vehicle owner defendants can only be held liable if they knew (or reasonably should have known) about the unfitness or incompetence of the driver when permitting them to use the vehicle. For example, if the vehicle owner smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath, it would likely constitute “knowledge” of intoxication sufficient to hold them liable for negligent entrustment in the event that the drunk driver causes an accident.
Incompetence — or unfitness — to drive may be difficult to determine in some cases, as it is largely a circumstantial determination. For example, if the defendant-driver is exhausted and is incapable of keeping their eyes open, that would likely constitute unfitness to drive. Similarly, if a driver does not have a valid license, that would likely constitute unfitness to drive. On the other hand, a history of minor collision accidents may not be sufficient to qualify as incompetent or unfit.
In some cases, the vehicle owner may not have given the defendant-driver permission to use their vehicle, in which case the owner cannot be held liable. Of course, there are many cases in which permission is not explicit or verbal, but is still somewhat clear. For example, if the driver asks the vehicle owner for permission to use their car, and the owner nods and gives a thumbs up, that would almost certainly qualify as a grant of permission — alternatively, if the owner had not said anything, that might qualify as permission to the extent that the owner heard the driver but did not attempt to prevent them from using the car.
Contact Our Firm Today for a Free Consultation With an Experienced Allentown Car Accident Lawyer
Here at Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC, our attorneys have over three decades of experience advocating on behalf of injured plaintiffs throughout the state of Pennsylvania, assisting them with the litigation process in a range of disputes, including car accidents and other motor vehicle accidents where the vehicle at-issue was owned by a third-party.
Oftentimes, basic car accident lawsuits escalate into highly-complex disputes with multiple defendants, some of whom are extremely aggressive — we have litigated such disputes extensively, and are well-equipped to resolve claims favorably, whether through a negotiated settlement or through a verdict at trial.
Call (610) 433-3910 or submit an online case evaluation form today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with an experienced Allentown car accident lawyer here at Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC. We look forward to helping you obtain the compensation you deserve.