"Can I Borrow the Car?": Responsibility of Vehicle Owners for Accidents Caused by an Unlicensed Borrower

A report of arrests made this week stemming from a chain reaction auto accident that occurred back in May caught the eye of our Panama City personal injury lawyer. The case reminds us of some of the principles that our skilled legal team can use to help victims recover compensation after a crash.

Unlicensed Navaree Teen Causes Chain Reaction Car Crash

According to Northwest Florida Daily News, 15-year-old Brianna Henderson of Navarre was driving alone in a 2004 Dodge Durango on Thursday May 31. At approximately 6:30 P.M., she turned from Edgewood Drive onto U.S. Highway 98 and into the path of a 2012 Nissan Altima, driven by 50-year-old Alley J. Catyb.

The Florida Highway Patrol reports that Henderson hit the passenger side of the Altima, a seat occupied by 77-year-old Margaret Catyb. The Altima spun and crashed into a 2002 Acura piloted by 20-year-old Aaron C. Patsch of New Mexico. Patsch had been driving west and the front left of his car hit the rear of the Altima. Margaret Catyb died from her injuries. Patsch and his passengers, 20-year-old Bryanna Andrews and 18-year-old Trent M. Patsch, suffered minor injuries. Overall, the accident resulted in $36,000 of damages.

Police recently finished their investigation into the late spring crash and authorities made arrests on Friday. Brianna Henderson was charged with failure to yield at a stop sign, violating the conditions of her learner's permit, and failure to obtain a driver's license. Additionally, police also arrested her mother, Apryl M. Tucker, for allowing an unauthorized person to drive an automobile.

Florida Law on Liability of a Vehicle Owner for an Unlicensed Driver's Actions

Pursuant to Florida Statute 322.36, it is against the law to knowingly allow someone to drive your car unless that person is permitted to drive under Florida law. The law applies if the owner knows the borrower has not yet obtained a license or knows the borrower's license has been suspended. Additionally, if the driver is involved in an accident that causes injury or death, the owner's own license may be suspended for one year. A more specific statute, 322.25, states that a parent/guardian may not knowingly allow his/her child under age 18 to drive on any highway unless the child is authorized to drive by Florida law.

As we have noted before, criminal and civil courts are distinct and sometimes different laws apply. It is not fully clear whether Sections 322.35 and 322.36 translate directly to hold an owner liable in civil court for an accident caused by the unlicensed driver. However, civil courts often reference principles behind other laws to achieve a fair result. This might mean leaning towards imposing liability on the parent, given the statutory precedence, because the teen is unlikely to have assets sufficient to compensate an injured person or the family of a deceased victim.

Importantly, a more general rule called the "permissive use doctrine" can apply to help those injured in cases similar to the accident that claimed the life of Margaret Catyb. Under that rule, the owner of a car may be held liable for any for damaged incurred in an accident caused by an authorized borrower. Statutory law does create limits on damages in these cases. Additionally, the "dangerous instrumentality doctrine" imposes strict liability on a vehicle owner when s/he voluntarily allows someone else to drive the car and that driver's negligence causes an accident. Note that this doctrine does require proof that the borrower acted negligently.

There are many legal principles that can help victims recover after a car accident. Without legal counsel, a victim may not know who they can sue, what types of damages are available, and how to best proceed with a civil claim. With over three decades of experience, Panama City injury attorney Wes Pittman can help accident victims recover money damages to help them recover, both financially, medically, and emotionally.

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