Stop Driving My Car

If you live in New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, or Iowa, you might want to think twice about lending your car to a responsible friend with a good driving record, or you could wind up getting sued for doing a good deed.

In July 1998, a road rage incident in Upstate New York tragically left a passenger in one of the vehicles with severe brain damage. Both drivers involved in the accident were found to be criminally liable and received jail time.

Additionally, the victim’s family was awarded $47 million in damages — not from one of the drivers serving time for the accident, but from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which had rented a car to one of the guilty parties. Simply renting a car, while following all state laws and legal parameters, was enough to put them on the hook for the entire $47 million under New York State law.

New York and the four other states mentioned above enacted vicarious liability laws, which allow trial lawyers to sue completely innocent car owners, whether the owner is an individual or a car rental company, for the actions of those to whom they lent their car. This, despite the fact that they are in strict compliance with all state statutes.

Most other states recognize the inherent unfairness in such laws, opting instead to look for evidence of actual fault. It is one thing if a person knowingly lends his car to someone without a license, without insurance or with a tendency to engage in reckless behavior. Under such circumstances, this person could still be held liable for negligently lending his car under the laws of any state. However, a person who follows both the letter and spirit of the law should not have to fear being hit by a lawsuit. Vicarious liability laws, on the other hand, expose more and more people to the threat of a lawsuit.

Additionally, such laws place every car rental company in an untenable situation. While companies can be held vicariously liable simply for supplying the automobile involved in an accident, some state laws make it virtually impossible to turn down people seeking to rent their vehicles. In New York, for example, age cannot be considered when renting a vehicle, even though it was a possible contributing factor in the road rage case.

As a result, consumers pay the price. The threat of million dollar verdicts has kept hundreds of small and mid-sized car rental companies out of New York. Not only does this erode our country’s sense of individual responsibility, it also leaves consumers with fewer overall choices and higher rates from those companies who choose to remain in New York State. All because they have to protect themselves against trail lawyers and the long arm of vicarious liability.

Now think of all of the times you lent your car to a neighbor while theirs was in the shop, or lent your truck to a friend so they could pick up a large item for their home. Under the vicarious liability laws, you were tempting fate, facing possibly ruinous lawsuits.

It is a sad day in our country when one has to consider the threat of a lawsuit before doing something as simple as lending a car to a friend. In these cases, trial lawyers are robbing decent honest Americans of their trust and peace of mind. Many states have already stood up to the trial lawyers and their laws. It is time for the rest of them to sweep such legal lunacy off their books for good.