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Vicarious Liability in Alabama Car Accident Injury Cases

Apr 17, 2014 - Car Accidents, Tuscaloosa by

In filing a Tuscaloosa car accident lawsuit, an experienced plaintiff attorney looks beyond those obviously negligent. speeding1

The at-fault driver behind the wheel will be named in any negligence lawsuit. However, other parties may be found vicariously liable for the actions of that driver. In English common law, this was known as the “theory of respondeat superior.” This is the principal that allows employers to be held liable for the actions of an employee committed within the line and scope of his or her employment. The employer or vehicle owner can also be sued for independent torts such as negligent entrustment and/or negligent hiring, training and/or supervision.

Each state has their own laws and limitations on vicarious liability. At the federal level, Congress passed a measure in 2005, called the Graves Amendment, which bars states from holding vehicle rental or leasing firms liable for negligence in cases where customers cause accidents.

The Alabama Supreme Court weighed the issue of vicarious liability in auto collisions four years ago in the case of Cheshire v. Putman. Here, a pickup truck driver rear-ended another vehicle while traveling approximately 60-miles-per-hour, causing serious injuries to the occupants of the other vehicle, including two young children. The plaintiffs later sued the pick-up driver’s employer for on the theory of vicarious liability and also for negligent hiring, training and supervision.

A jury awarded nearly $7 million in damages to the plaintiff. However on appeal, the defendant argued that the worker was on a personal errand at the time of the wreck, and therefore not operating the vehicle within the scope of his employment, as would be necessary to establish vicarious liability. However, the court determined that the worker was traveling the route he always did for work, and the fact that he made a stop or two for personal reasons was irrelevant.

More recently, the Florida Supreme Court weighed the issue of vicarious liability as it pertains to individual vehicle owners. In the case of Christensen v. Bowen, the widow of a man killed in a crash filed a wrongful death action against both the driver of the car and the woman’s husband, who owned the vehicle.

The plaintiff here alleged vicarious liability for the negligence of the at-fault driver on the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. This is a common law doctrine that indicates that the owner of an “inherently dangerous tool” can be held liable for any injuries caused by the operation of that tool. (This particular law is unique to Florida, though in Alabama, the principle of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle may apply.)

The owner of the vehicle argued that he had bought the vehicle as a gift to his wife, and after that, had zero involvement with it. The widow moved for a directed verdict of ownership, but was denied.

A jury later found that the husband was not an owner of the vehicle for purposes of the negligence action.

However, the district court reversed that finding and the state supreme court upheld the latter decision, ruling that a person whose name is on the certificate of vehicle title can’t avoid vicarious liability just because he never intended to be an owner and had no control over the vehicle.

Additional Resources:

Christensen v. Bowen, April 10, 2014, Florida Supreme Court

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