Friday, September 30, 2011

The Rebuttable Presumption of Agency in Suits Against the Non-Driver Owner of a Vehicle Involved in a Car Accident

            It is often the case that the driver of a vehicle involved in a car accident is not the owner of that vehicle.  This scenario frequently arises in one of three forms: 1) the driver of the vehicle is using that vehicle with the permission of the owner, for the driver’s personal use; 2) the driver of the vehicle is using the vehicle in furtherance of the owner’s needs, creating an agent/servant/employee relationship between the two, and; 3) the driver of the vehicle is using the vehicle without the owner’s permission.  More often than not, a law suit arising out of an automobile accident involving the use of a vehicle owned by one person and driven by another will result in both the owner and the driver being named as defendants.

            No matter which factual scenario exists in a given automobile accident, the law in Maryland is uniform with regard to the prima facie liability of the owner of the vehicle and the burden of proof necessary to establish that liability.  Generally, proof of ownership of a vehicle raises a rebuttable presumption that the driver of that vehicle was the agent, servant or employee of the owner.  This means that the owner can be held to be vicariously liable for the plaintiff’s injuries unless the owner produces evidence that the driver was not an agent of the owner.  See generally, Penn. R. R. Co. v. Lord, 159 Md. 518, 151 A. 400 (1930). 

In other words, if the plaintiff alleges in the complaint that the defendant driver was operating a vehicle owned by the defendant owner as an agent, servant or employee, the plaintiff has made out a prima facie case that the owner is vicariously liable for the negligence of the driver, and the burden of going forward on the evidence then shifts to the owner to rebut that presumption.  If the owner fails to produce evidence that the driver was not acting within the scope of an agency relationship, then the owner can be held to be jointly and severally liable with the driver. 

With regard to the three common scenarios listed above, each can be illustrated with a similar fact pattern.  Assume that John is driving a vehicle owned by Jane and negligently causes a car accident with another vehicle owned and operated by Mary, who was not at fault in any way.  Mary sues John and Jane for damages and injuries arising out of that automobile accident, alleging that John was driving the vehicle as the agent, servant and/or employee of Jane.

Pattern 1:  John is Jane’s friend, and borrowed Jane’s car with her permission to use for a few days while his car was in the shop getting repaired.  John was using Jane’s car for his use only, and was not furthering any of Jane’s needs or acting on her directions.  In this case, Jane would need to rebut the resumption of agency by introducing evidence, either during discovery or at trial, that John was not using the car at her direction, and was not her employee or agent.  If she does this, the burden of proof then shifts back to Mary to introduce evidence that John was Jane’s agent.  If Mary fails to meet that burden her claim against Jane fails as a matter of law.

Pattern 2:  John is Jane’s friend, and borrowed Jane’s car with her permission to run an errand at the store.  Since John is going to the store, Jane asks John to pick up a number of items there as well and return them to her when he brings the car back.  In this case, John is now the agent of Jane, and is operating her vehicle in furtherance of Jane’s instructions and needs.  Because of this, Jane can be held to be vicariously liable to Mary, even though Jane was not in the car, because her agent, John, negligently caused Mary’s injuries.  Now, the fact patter can be modified in any number of ways to get Jane “off the hook.”  For example, if Jane specifically told John that he was to go to the store, and come right back without making any detours or running any errands, then she specifically limited the scope of the agency relationship.  If John decides to go to the bar, gets drunk, and then decides to run several errands all over town, he has exceeded the scope of the authority given him by Jane.  Jane could then introduce evidence of all of this to sever the agency relationship and avoid vicarious liability.

Pattern 3:  John is Jane’s old boyfriend, whom Jane has recently kicked out of the house because she was fed up with his dangerous drinking and driving habits, and because John (from Boston) blamed Jane (from Baltimore) for the fact that the Baltimore Orioles kept the Boston Red Sox out of the postseason by beating them again and again in September 2011.  Unfortunately, John knew where Jane kept her car keys, took Jane’s car without her permission, and subsequently caused a car accident with Mary.  In this case, Mary has made out a prima facie case, and permissive use and agency must be rebutted.  Jane must introduce evidence that John took the keys without her knowledge or permission, and that he was not in any way acting as the agent, servant or employee of Jane.  As before, if Jane does this the burden shifts back to Mary to prove otherwise, and if she fails to meet that burden, her claim against Jane fails as a matter of law.

From a practical perspective, it is essential for any attorney to conduct an initial investigation to ascertain whether any agency relationship exists between the defendant owner and defendant driver.  If that investigation reveals that no agency relationship existed, the next step must be to establish this during the discovery period.  If, for example, written discovery is exchanged and depositions are taken, a Motion for Summary Judgment can be filed that would result in the court ruling that Jane was not liable as a matter of law.  Because the burden of proving that no agency relationship existed between the owner and driver requires the introduction of evidence rebutting that presumption, a Motion to Dismiss the owner filed at the outset of the case will either be denied or the ruling reserved for the day of trial.

Article contributed by James Buck

No comments:

Post a Comment