Sunday, January 29, 2012

Plaintiff's Act of Permitting Unauthorized Person to Drive Results in Plaintiff's Vicarious Liability for Own Injuries

In its recent opinion in the case of Price v. Leibfried, No. 332 MDA 2011 (Pa. Super. Dec. 21, 2011 Gantman, Lazarus, and Olson, JJ.) (Opinion by Lazarus, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1574 which pertains to permitting unauthorized person to drive in the context of an auto accident litigation.

In this case, the evidence before the court confirmed that this matter involved a two car motor vehicle accident. The Plaintiff was a passenger in her own motor vehicle, which rear-ended a tractor trailer. The Plaintiff’s vehicle was being operated by her friend at the time of the accident  The Plaintiff named the friend as one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

Prior to the accident, the Plaintiff and her friend had been drinking alcohol throughout the evening.

In her Complaint, the Plaintiff alleged negligence against her friend and also sued a local tavern under the Dram Shop Act.

At the close of discovery, the Defendant driver filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asserting that the Plaintiff was vicariously liable for her own injuries and cited to 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1574 (Permitting Unauthorized Person to Drive).

In its opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact that the Plaintiff knew, prior to the accident, that the Defendant driver did not have a valid driver’s license on the night of the accident.  There was no issue of fact that the Plaintiff also knew that the Defendant driver had been drinking beer and hard liquor on the night in question.

Based on these facts, the Superior Court agreed with the trial court decision that, as a matter of law, the Plaintiff was therefore vicariously liable for the Defendant driver’s negligence in the operation of the Plaintiff's vehicle pursuant to 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1574, as interpreted under the case of Terwilliger v. Kitchen, 781 A.2d 1201, 1206 (Pa. Super. 2001).

The Superior Court agreed that no reasonable minds could differ on a conclusion that the facts established that the Plaintiff had knowledge that the Defendant driver was not a licensed driver and that, despite this knowledge, the Plaintiff still authorized or permitted the Defendant driver to drive her vehicle. Since the Plaintiff therefore violated §1574 of the Motor Vehicle Code by allowing an unauthorized person to operate her vehicle, the court agreed that the Plaintiff was vicariously liable for the Defendant driver’s negligence.

The court went on to state that, since the Plaintiff was vicariously liable for the Defendant driver’s actions, she could not recover damages from that Defendant.

In so ruling, the court allowed the remaining claim by the Plaintiff against the Defendant tavern to proceed to trial where an apportionment of the percentage of liability between the Defendant driver and the tavern would be left for the jury to decide.  Based upon this ruling, however, the Plaintiff would not be permitted to recover against the Defendant driver on any verdict entered against that particular defendant.

Anyone desiring a copy of this opinion may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

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