How Texas negligent entrustment cases work.
Imagine this scenario: you get hit by a car, and it turns that the driver doesn’t own the car nor even have insurance. Is there any way you can make the car’s owner pay you? Would it even be fair to hold the owner responsible? The bottom line is that it’s possible, but you’ll need courtroom-level evidence that the owner should have known better.
Think about it this way: we all know that a properly manufactured and maintained car never hurt anyone on its own; instead, it requires a driver to behave improperly before it hurts someone. The typical accident involves the car’s owner at the wheel. But can the owner of a car, weapon, or anything else be held liable when someone else uses their property and causes another person harm? It’s not simple, but under Texas’s cause of action called “negligent entrustment,” the owner might well be financially responsible for the damage done.
Getting the owner to pay for another’s actions:
Generally speaking, the law presumes that grownups are responsible for their own actions, not others’. If your neighbor steals a knife from your kitchen and later stabs someone, under no recognized legal theory will you be held responsible. The reasons for this are obvious—not only do you bear zero moral culpability, we don’t want people afraid of their houseguests doing something terrible with their stuff even without permission.
Nonetheless, there are circumstances in which we can identify how some bad conduct on an owner’s part caused or at least contributed to an injury. In these rare occasions, we can fairly require an item’s owner to compensate the victim. Most often, this occurs in the vehicle context, so we’ll analyze these claims through the lens of a car accident. The victim must be able to show the following 5 things happened:
- The owner allowed another person to use their vehicle.
- The borrower was unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless.
- The owner knew or should have known that the borrower was unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless.
- The borrower was negligent on the occasion in question (the accident).
- The borrower’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury.
All the above boils down to one central question: did the owner’s allowing the driver to use the car constitute a bad act in itself? That is, should we hold an owner even partly financially responsible for handing over a car to someone else?
You’ll need evidence that focuses on the bad actor and the owner of the property.
From the list above, it’s by now obvious that to connect the car’s owner to the accident, some bad decision on two individuals’ part must be shown.
First, it’s not enough to show that the driver who caused with accident with the owner’s car was negligent. Instead, you’ll need evidence that the driver him/herself must have never been in the position where he or she should have been behind the wheel in the very first place. This could be because the driver was substantially underage, mentally ill, a known reckless driver, or intoxicated. But the courts do not look at conduct after the car was entrusted to the individual—for example, if a completely sober driver was given the keys only to drive to a bar, become intoxicated, and later cause an accident. Or, if what appears to be a healthy individual hours later experiences massive seizures and wrecks the car. The incompetency must be present at the time the keys are handed over.
Second, what makes these cases complex is having to show that the driver or possessor of the car, weapon, or other item was “unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless” when they got behind the wheel, but also that the owner “knew or should have known” the driver was. In rare cases, an owner will simply fess up to having handed over the car to, for example, a child or an intoxicated person. But normally, this will require getting evidence from the driver himself—often medical records, blood-alcohol tests, and testimony—to show a jury that the no reasonable person in the owner’s position would have ever handed over the keys.
The following are some common examples of how this plays out:
- At a BBQ, a thoroughly-drunken guest asks a friend for his car keys so he can go buy more alcohol. The friend knows the guest is drunk, but gives him the keys anyhow. If the drunk driver hurts someone on the way to or from the store, the car’s owner is likely liable for some of the damage because the friend knew or should have known from the guest’s behavior that he was intoxicated.
- A man lets his 11-year old nephew go joyriding in his pickup truck. Anyone would know that a child that age couldn’t be licensed to drive.
- A man’s new girlfriend asks for his car keys and later wrecks into a family van. Unbeknownst to the man, the woman has 4 convictions for reckless driving and has a suspended license. The victims would have to somehow prove that the man knew his girlfriend had a history of reckless driving to recover any money from him. This is an uphill battle.
The bottom line? The driver who caused your accident should have never been behind the wheel in the first place, and the owner had sufficient facts at his disposal to know better than to have handed over the keys. Succeeding in your claim will require a lawyer with years of experience in proving up complicated facts with courtroom evidence. Texas attorney Michael Grossman has 25 years’ experience in finding the facts and making his clients’ cases stick. To speak to one of our experienced personal injury attorneys, call (855) 326-0000.
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