Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Negligent Entrustment and Punitive Damages Claims In Case of Driver With Only a Learner's Permit (Cell Phone Use Also Alleged)

In the case of Robinson v. Marett, No. 10672 of 2018, C.A. (C.P. Lawrence Co. Dec. 20, 2018 Motto, P.J.), the court overruled the Defendants’ Preliminary Objections regarding issues of negligent entrustment and punitive damages in a motor vehicle accident case.  

The Defendants’ preliminarily objected to the Plaintiff’s Complaint asserting that the claim for negligent entrustment was legally insufficient because there was no evidence to establish that the driver was incompetent to operate the vehicle when it was entrusted to him by the owner of the vehicle.   

The Plaintiffs had alleged that the owner had allowed the driver to operate the vehicle when the driver only had a learner’s permit and was not supervised by an adult family member.   The Complaint additionally asserted that the driver was distracted by his use of a cell phone or other electronic device, was operating the vehicle at a high rate of speed, and was following the vehicle ahead too closely.  

The court ruled that these allegations were sufficient to support a claim for negligent entrustment because, under these circumstances alleged, the owner should have known the risk to others by allowing an unlicensed and unsupervised driver to operate the vehicle.  

The Defendant driver and owner had asserted that the driver had a driver’s license at the time of the accident such that the negligent entrustment claims should be rejected.  However, the court noted that this argument required the court to consider facts that were not contained within the Complaint, which was impermissible when deciding Preliminary Objections. The court noted that the Defendants could make this argument again by way of a summary judgment motion but reiterated that such an argument could not be the basis for allowing a Preliminary Objection.  

The Defendants additionally asserted that the Plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness should be stricken as scandalous or impertinent, because the Plaintiffs had no basis for recovering punitive damages under the facts alleged.  

The court rejected this argument after finding that the Plaintiffs had alleged sufficient facts from which a jury could conclude that the driver acted outrageously. These allegations indicated that the driver was not properly licensed and was not being attentive to other vehicles on the roadway at the time of the accident.  

As such, the Defendants’ Preliminary Objections were overruled and the Plaintiff's negligent entrustment claims were allowed to proceed.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

Source:  “Digest of Recent Opinions.”  Pennsylvania Law Weekly (Feb. 26, 2019).

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