As a practicing Des Moines, IA personal injury attorney, I am often confronted with what I call the “cocktail party question”. That is, whether at a cocktail party or just hanging out at the pool, it is almost inevitable that someone, upon hearing I’m a lawyer, walks up and tells me a long and convoluted fact pattern followed with a, “can they do that?” This type of question to a fact pattern is never simple to answer, especially when I’m not wearing my lawyer hat! Another angle of the cocktail party question is when I’m asked a seemingly easy question but, due to missing information, I’m again at a loss. This latter scenario occurred just days ago, and I came away from the conversation feeling like I probably caused the poor lady who asked more confusion than she had when we first started talking. With a glimmer of hope that she will ever see this article, below I am attempting to offer her a more thorough answer than I had previously.
Her question to me? Am I Liable if Someone Borrows my Car and Gets in an Accident?
Again, a straightforward question with a challenging answer. The safest answer to this question is the oft-used, “it depends”. The reason “it depends” is due, in large part, to differences in laws from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Therefore, if you are faced with this question, it is important to research the laws in your specific state to ensure accuracy.
That said, frequently the owner of a vehicle is indeed liable if they loan out their car and the driver gets in an accident. In many states, the priority for negligence claims stemming from a motor vehicle collision is owner first then operator. For example, you loan your car to your neighbor who proceeds to hit a pedestrian with your car. The victim would make their first claim for injury against your insurance policy then, if they are not fully compensated by your insurance carrier, they can then make a claim against the operator (neighbor). This situation is why some parents who buy cars for their kids choose to put the car and insurance in the child’s name as this help protect the parent should the child injure someone in an accident.
However, even in cases in which owner / operator isn’t the priority for claims, the owner isn’t necessarily off the hook should someone else crash their car. There is a claim that may be able to be brought called negligent entrustment in which the injured party might be able to make a claim against the owner for negligently entrusting your car to the person who injured them. While this claim isn’t made terribly often, it does exist and, under the right circumstances, can be made.
Thanks to our friend and blog author, Christopher A. Johnston of Johnston|Martineau PLLP, for his insight into car accident liability.