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The Role of “Negligent Entrustment” in a Georgia Car Accident

There are many car accidents where a negligent driver is not the only person who may be held responsible for the injuries sustained by the victims. For example, if a reckless driver was operating their employer’s vehicle and performing a work-related task, the employer is liable under a legal doctrine known as respondeat superior. In effect, the employer must take responsibility for its employee’s negligence.

But respondeat superior assumes the existence of a principal-agent relationship such as that of an employer and an employee. What if someone loans their car to a friend and they get into an accident? Is the owner responsible simply for the damages simply because it was their car?

The answer to these questions can be quite a bit more complicated than a respondeat superior situation. Georgia law recognizes another legal doctrine known as *negligent entrustment”. This is where the first party provides the second party a “dangerous instrumentality” and the second party then injures a third party with that instrumentality. A motor vehicle is considered a “dangerous instrumentality” in this context.

Negligent entrustment generally requires the plaintiff in a Georgia car accident lawsuit to prove the following four things:

  1. The defendant owned or had control over the vehicle involved in the accident.
  2. The person driving the vehicle was incompetent, ineligible, or otherwise unfit to operate that vehicle safely.
  3. The defendant had actual knowledge of the driver’s incompetency, ineligibility, or unfitness to use the vehicle in a safe manner.
  4. The defendant nevertheless allowed the driver to operate the vehicle, and as a result the plaintiff suffered injuries.

There are many scenarios where negligent entrustment may exist. Here are a few hypothetical examples:

  • The owner of a vehicle allows their teenage child to drive, even though they do not have their driver’s license, and their child causes an accident.
  • The owner of a vehicle allows someone they know has a history of driving drunk or recklessly to use their car and they get into an accident.
  • The owner of a vehicle allows an elderly parent or relative who has a serious medical condition like epilepsy to drive their car and they suffer a seizure while behind the wheel and crash.
  • The owner of a commercial motor vehicle, such as a semi-truck, hires a driver who lacks the proper qualifications or training to use one of their trucks and they get into an accident on the road.

Does It Matter if the Child Asked for Permission First?

Defendants in Georgia car accident lawsuits will often raise a “lack of consent” defense when faced with a negligent entrustment allegation. Basically, if the defense can prove they never gave the negligent driver permission to take or use their vehicle, that is sufficient to defeat liability based on negligent entrustment. Even if there is evidence to suggest there was consent, a judge may still reject negligent entrustment if the defendant is convincing enough on this issue.

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision, Bassett v. Winfield Farm, Inc., provides a cautionary tale. In this case, two 14-year-old girls were involved in a Jeep accident. The plaintiff was one of the girls. She was the passenger. The Jeep belonged to the other girl’s mother, the defendant in this case.

The defendant and her daughter lived on a 700-acre cattle farm. On the morning following a slumber party, the plaintiff, the defendant’s daughter, and a third girl took the vehicle out and drove it around the farm. At one point, the driver was attempting to change the music playing from her phone and she lost control of the Jeep. It flipped into a ditch, ejecting all three girls.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant and the company that owned her farm. She alleged negligent entrustment on the part of the defendant. During a deposition, the defendant’s daughter testified that she typically drove her mother’s Jeep a few times a week prior to the accident. The defendant, however, testified that her daughter was required to ask for permission before taking the Jeep and that she would not allow her to drive in the mornings. And the daughter confirmed she did not ask for permission on the morning of the accident because she feared her mother would say no.

Based on this testimony, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s negligent entrustment claim. The court found the evidence showed the daughter did not take the Jeep without permission. So the mother could not be held liable. The Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, noting “where the record shows that a driver was required to ask the owner for permission before driving the car, the driver’s previous use of that car does not establish that she had the owner’s permission at the particular time in question.”

Negligent Entrustment vs. Family Purpose Doctrine

It is worth noting that it is possible to hold parents responsible for the children’s reckless use of a vehicle under Georgia’s “Family Purpose” doctrine. This is unrelated to negligent entrustment. Rather, the family purpose doctrine is an extension of vicarious liability, the same legal principle that forms the basis for a respondeat superior claim.

Similar to negligent entrustment, the family purpose doctrine requires a plaintiff to prove all of the following elements:

  • The defendant owned or had control over the vehicle in question.
  • The defendant made that vehicle available for “family use.”
  • The driver who took the vehicle was a member of the defendant’s “immediate household.”
  • The vehicle was driven with the “permission or acquiescence” of the defendant.

The family purpose doctrine can apply to situations where a child who lives with their parents takes the family car and causes an accident. But as with negligent entrustment, it will not cover situations where the defense can prove the vehicle was taken without permission. And there must still be some proof the vehicle was used for some “family purpose.”

Speak with Our Atlanta Car Accident Lawyers Today

Following a Georgia car accident, it is important to conduct a full investigation to determine all of the potentially liable parties, including the owner of the vehicle if they are not the driver. Our qualified Atlanta car accident lawyers can review your case and advise you on the best course of action. Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today to schedule a free initial consultation.

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