Car Accident Liability: Driver or Owner?

Car Accident Liability: Driver or Owner?

When you get the call your loved one was in a car accident, we all fear the worst. But once the smoke has cleared and hopefully everyone is okay, the issue of who is really responsible comes to question. So does car accident liability fall on the driver or owner?

Everyone knows someone who has been involved in a car accident. Whether it is a minor accident, a fender bender or a major crash that involved serious injuries, one of the first topics to come up is often the issue of fault (or “liability”). We’ve heard prospective clients say countless times that the issue of fault in their accident is clear-cut and there’s no way that any other party (including themselves) could have caused the accident.

While these individuals are correct most of the time, occasionally they are wrong. Indeed, some of these folks are wrong because they are actually at fault. However, their view of liability can also be incorrect because in Georgia a non-driver/non-passenger who wasn’t even in the vehicle during the accident can be found liable for damages nevertheless.

In this article, we will discuss a few examples of when and how you can be held responsible for an accident caused by another driver.

But first…

When to seek professional legal counsel

The topic of liability as it pertains to Georgia personal injury cases, including car accidents, is an important one and an experienced injury lawyer will address this issue for accident victims and those with questions about their car accident. While this discussion focuses on what may be considered “atypical” situations, there may be a lot more to your own accident case than you realize. It may be in your best interest to contact an experienced car accident attorney near you for a case evaluation before handling it on your own or talking to the insurance company.

Bottom line:

Many people assume that liability must fall solely on the parties physically involved in a car accident. That assumption is incorrect.

It’s always a best practice to have an experienced car accident lawyer provide an analysis of liability as it pertains to the parties involved in causing a motor vehicle accident.

Parents of a young (teen) driver

In Georgia, the parents of a teen driver who is driving the family car can potentially be held liable for the damages caused by the negligent acts of their child if the child causes an accident while driving the family vehicle for a family purpose. This is the definition of what is often referred to as the “Family Purpose Doctrine.”

In the case Dashtpeyma v. Wade, 646 S.E.2d 335, 337 (Ga. App., 2007), the Georgia Court of Appeals handled this issue and held that “when an automobile is maintained by the owner for the use and convenience of his family, such owner is liable for the negligence of a member of the family having authority to drive the car while it is being used for a family purpose”.

Essentially if your child or other close family member is driving your vehicle—a “family vehicle” in the state of Georgia—then you may be liable for their negligence if they wreck your vehicle while driving to school, running household errands, driving to work or driving their siblings to and from school in addition to other recognized “family purposes.”

Any parent should consider their own potential liability before assuming that their minor child or other family member is responsible enough to drive the family vehicle. The parent’s liability could be for damages caused to other parties, including passengers riding with their minor child, pedestrians, and other drivers and passengers of other vehicles injured by the minor child’s negligence.

Additionally, it’s a good idea for anyone injured by a teen driver to contact an experienced Georgia car accident lawyer for the purpose of identifying the responsible parties. Under the Family Purpose Doctrine, there is an established law in place that can help you recover damages from someone other than the judgment-proof young driver (i.e. their parents or guardian).

That being said, no one should assume that just because the parents can be held responsible under the law that they have an easy road ahead of them. An experienced injury attorney can help you sort everything out.

Employer of a negligent driver

In Georgia, there may be a couple of ways in which an employer of a negligent driver may be held responsible for damages caused by their employee. The first is the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, which states that employers may be responsible for the negligent acts of their employees if their employee’s negligence caused damages and if the negligence was done within the scope of the employer’s business.

For example, imagine a FedEx delivery driver causes an accident. Under respondeat superior, their employer, Federal Express, may also share some of the liability for the damages caused when the FedEx driver’s truck ran into another vehicle, causing property damage and bodily injuries.

The second legal doctrine that may place liability on the employer is called “negligent entrustment.” Essentially this doctrine means that anyone who had actual knowledge of a driver’s habitual negligent conduct behind the wheel can be held responsible for damages they cause while using the vehicle entrusted or loaned to them.

For instance, in situations where employers fail to do proper background checks that would highlight the employee’s checkered history with driving violations or other risky behavior (usually drugs or alcohol), the employer may have some liability if their employee is negligent and causes an accident resulting in damages.

In other cases, an employer may know of the employee’s tendency for moving violations or drunk driving, and yet may still entrust an employee with a work vehicle. If you can prove that they had this actual knowledge, there may be a strong case for negligent entrustment against the employer.

No accident victim should assume that they will automatically have a strong case for negligent entrustment or respondeat superior simply because they are involved in an accident with a company-owned (commercial) vehicle. Even if the issue of liability seems cut-and-dry, don’t assume it’s a “slam dunk” case.

At Scholle Law, we’ve seen many cases where we were not able to know the full extent of liability until we investigated the facts and had a thorough understanding of all details involved. Anyone who is injured by a commercial vehicle or an employee driving a company-owned vehicle should contact an experienced Georgia accident lawyer for a full case evaluation.

Friend of a reckless or intoxicated driver

Our Atlanta law firm sees the consequences of reckless and intoxicated driving far too often, despite the fact that there’s a negative stigma on drivers who choose to get behind the wheel after they’ve had too much to drink, as well as those drivers who have no respect for the rules of the road. What we don’t hear enough about are the negligent people who knowingly loan their vehicles to reckless or intoxicated drivers.

This issue comes back to the topic of negligent entrustment, but the real difference with these cases is that typically we don’t run criminal background checks on our friends. These cases occur when the friend had knowledge of their friend’s proclivity for drunk driving, drug use or history of reckless driving that would have caused a reasonable person to think carefully about whether or not to loan their vehicle to their friend.

One particular example comes to mind when discussing negligent entrustment and friends loaning their vehicles to other friends. Let’s say John knows that his friend Jane has a suspended license for multiple alcohol-related traffic offenses. Despite this knowledge, John still decides to loan his car to Jane because she is going out for drinks and doesn’t have a way to get to the bar. Jane promises John that she will only have a few drinks and that she will be careful.

When Jane goes out later that night and causes a motor vehicle accident where she injures someone else, Georgia law will absolutely allow an injured party (the plaintiff) hurt by her negligence to not only bring a claim against Jane but also John, the owner of the vehicle. The plaintiff will still have to prove the necessary elements for the negligent entrustment case against John, but a competent injury lawyer can certainly do their best to assist by conducting a thorough investigation, as well as managing the discovery process should a lawsuit have to be filed.

Individuals or establishments who overserved the drunk driver

Along those same lines of the negligent vehicle owner who entrusts their vehicle to a known habitual negligent driver or drunk driver, we must also look at something that happens more than it should.

Have you ever been to a bar and seen someone get overserved? What about concerts, Braves games, restaurants and even house parties?

All of these places are examples of where someone other than the drunk driver may face criminal and civil liability for providing someone with too much of a “good time.”

In Georgia, there are strict guidelines that regulate the serving and selling of alcohol to patrons of restaurants, bars and other places where alcohol is sold and served. Businesses, servers and bartenders can all be named as defendants in drunk driving lawsuits if they don’t adhere to those guidelines and over-serve a driver who causes an alcohol-related car or truck accident.

In fact, it’s common nowadays for lawyers to bring “dram shop” actions against bars and restaurants that over-serve their patrons who later cause a drunk driving accident.

With the help of digital technology and an eye for what facts are important, an experienced Georgia dram shop lawyer may be able to prove the amount of alcohol served to a defendant driver. Often, the lawyer can bolster the case with footage from inside the bar or restaurant that shows the server or bartender over-serving the patron.

Adding a bar or restaurant as a party to a drunk driving-related civil lawsuit not only helps an injured client with potentially adding more value to their case, but it also helps ensure that restaurants and bars stop over-serving their patrons.

Another example of an “over-server” being held liable for providing too much alcohol to someone who goes on to cause an accident is a negligent party host. Every holiday season, we like to remind family, friends and colleagues that they can and will be held liable for a guest who is over-served at their Christmas party who then leaves and causes an accident on their way home. If someone throws a party at their home or their business in Georgia, they can be held liable for the damages caused by their intoxicated party guests.

Of course, no one plans for such awful things to happen as a result of wanting to have a fun social gathering, but Georgia law doesn’t require an injured plaintiff to prove intent to cause harm but instead they simply must prove negligent conduct. “Negligence” is a breach of a legally-recognized duty that causes damages.

In Georgia, a party host has a duty to not provide their guests with too much alcohol, especially if that party-goer will be driving upon leaving the party. If they do over-serve their guests, the party host should ensure that the guest has a safe way to get home or stays at their house as opposed to getting on the road in their inebriated state.

Anyone who is injured by a suspected drunk driver should find out more about the driver’s whereabouts prior to causing the accident. The facts relating to this issue are significant and can affect an injury case when it comes to case liability and damage recovery. This is why it’s essential to consult with an experienced motor vehicle accident lawyer in any drunk driving injury case.

When to talk to an experienced Georgia car accident lawyer

As you can see, holding the right individual or party responsible for a car accident can get complicated very quickly. Many non-lawyers or people with no reason to know this information will often assume that their injuries and damages may only be attributed to the actual negligent driver of the vehicle that hit them and they will have no knowledge of their potential cases against other parties such as the at-fault driver’s employer, their parents (if it is a young driver) or the person who loaned them the vehicle.

Every case is different and few are straightforward. These issues can greatly impact whether you receive a full and fair recovery for your damages, as well as the amount you may be able to recover.

In short:

You don’t have to be in the car with the negligent driver to potentially be held responsible for the damages they cause. The simple act of loaning someone a car can establish liability—something that parents of young drivers and close friends who loan their cars are faced with often.

There are multiple ways that businesses can also be held accountable when their employees cause car accidents. Additionally, over-serving alcohol can open up significant liability if a patron or guest is overserved, allowed to get behind the wheel of a car and later causes an accident.

An experienced lawyer knows how to leverage these complicated legal theories to add more parties to a claim or lawsuit. Whether or not you’re able to successfully prove negligence can impact your ability to recover compensation for your proven damages.

If you or a loved one are injured in a motor vehicle accident in Georgia, you likely face a difficult legal battle to establish liability and secure damages from the at-fault party, parties or their insurance company(s).

At Scholle Law, our Atlanta car and truck accident attorneys fully understand Georgia law when it comes to being involved in an accident. We know how to find all the parties that may be held responsible so that we can help secure the compensation you deserve.

Have questions?

Consult our experienced Georgia accident and injury lawyers promptly after suffering injuries caused by a negligent driver.

Contact Scholle Law for answers. Your initial consultation is free.