Car Accidents and Negligence: Who Is Responsible

Mr. Good Samaritan of Rochester, New York, loaned his automobile to a neighbor to go on an errand. The neighbor ran into a pedestrian who made a claim against Mr. Samaritan.

Unfortunately, the owner had dropped his liability insurance on the automobile and, therefore, had to defend and ultimately pay for the damages caused by his neighbor’s negligence. Mr. Samaritan was held liable by virtue of Section 59 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law of New York State.

This made the owner liable for the operation of the vehicle where it was being used “with the permission, express or implied, of such owner.” Suppose you reside in a state where the car owner is not responsible for the driver’s negligence. What happens when you loan your car to someone and he has an accident in one of the states that make the owner liable?

The United States Supreme Court answered that question. It held that you would be responsible. You would come under the laws of the state where the accident happened. The famous Justice Brandeis said*:
Liability . . . depends on the law of the place of the injury. . .
. . . the essential question is the power of New York to make the absent owner liable personally for the injury inflicted within the state by his machine.

No good reason is suggested why, where there is permission to take the automobile into a state for use upon its highways, personal liability should not be imposed upon the owner in case of injury inflicted there by the driver’s negligence.

In the following seven states, the law imposes liability on the owner and presumes that at the time of the accident, the automobile was being driven by an authorized agent or by someone who had the owner’s consent:
Connecticut Oregon
District of Columbia Tennessee
Massachusetts West Virginia New Jersey

This presumption is called prima facie or rebuttable. The owner can show that the presumption is contrary to the facts.

In those states where the owner is held liable even though he is not personally negligent, “owner” generally refers to the registered owner. A purchaser under a conditional sales contract may be held to be the “owner” even though he does not have complete title to the automobile.

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