I am often asked by personal injury clients why the owner of the vehicle was sued in automobile or trucking accident cases when another driver was driving the vehicle and caused the accident. Whether you are the owner of a vehicle that was sued or you intend to sue the owner of the vehicle involved in your accident, you need to know about the law in Texas concerning negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle. Therefore, this article addresses the tort of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle and the elements necessary to sustain such a cause of action in Court with respect to an automobile accident case.
The elements for a cause of action in Texas for negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle in automobile accidents cases include the following:
The owner entrusted his/her vehicle to another person;
That person was an unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless driver;
The owner knew or should have known the driver was unlicensed, incompetent, or had a propensity to drive recklessly;
The driver was negligent on the occasion in question;
The driver's negligence proximately caused the plaintiff's injury.
The last two elements of the cause of action concerning whether the driver was negligent on the occasion in question and whether such negligence proximately caused the plaintiff's injury are the same elements required in all negligence cases; therefore, we will focus on the first three elements which are unique to the cause of action for negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle.
1. The Owner Entrusted the Vehicle
For purposes of negligent entrustment, the owner of a vehicle can be a person or entity claiming ownership and having possession of the motor vehicle, or someone who exercises control over the vehicle. Therefore, a nonowner of a vehicle can be liable for negligent entrustment if such person has the right to control the vehicle (i.e. a son who entrusts his mother's vehicle to a friend).
To prove ownership, a plaintiff can present evidence such as a certificate of title and/or the owner's liability insurance. Such evidence is not conclusive; however, it creates a presumption of ownership that must be rebutted and disproven by the other party.
To establish liability against a nonowner of a vehicle for negligent entrustment, it must be shown that the defendant had the legal right to control the vehicle and not just the exercise of some control over the vehicle. Such legal right to control can be evidenced by the true owner's consent or a right established by contract.
Entrustment can be proved with evidence that the owner permitted the driver to use the vehicle and permission can be either express or implied. Implied permission may be inferred from the conduct of the parties. For example, a repeated lack of an objection to the driver's use of the vehicle may signify consent and implied permission for the driver to use the vehicle. Also, permission can be implied with evidence of longstanding and unrevoked instructions to drive the vehicle.
2. Unlicensed, Incompetent, or Reckless Driver
The entrustment of a vehicle to a person who does not have a valid driver's license constitutes negligence per se. An unrestricted driver's license is prima facia evidence of a party's competence to drive the vehicle, and without any evidence to the contrary, conclusively negates the element of negligent entrustment that the owner knew or should have known the driver was incompetent.
However, a driver's incompetence or recklessness is determined at the time of the entrustment and the type of conduct sufficient to prove driver incompetence or recklessness is determined on a case by case basis.
Evidence of the driver's driving record and the driver's condition, state and situation at the time of the entrustment of the vehicle are admissible to prove a driver's propensity for recklessness and incompetence while operating a motor vehicle. If the owner of the vehicle had knowledge of the person's driving record at the time of the entrustment, such as the person's involvement in at fault accidents or traffic citations, such evidence may be admissible. Evidence of a driver's condition, state and situation at the time of the entrustment may include the driver's physical or mental incapacitation, intoxication, or any other evidence tending to show the driver's lack of judgment or perception to drive a vehicle reasonably safely.
3. Owner's Knowledge of Incompetence
To prove negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle, a plaintiff must prove with competent evidence that the owner knew or reasonably should have known of the driver's incompetence to drive a vehicle at the time of the entrustment. In general, if the driver shows the owner a valid, unrestricted driver's license, the owner has no further duty to investigate the driver's past driving history. However, if there is some knowledge by the owner at the time of the entrustment that the driver might be incompetent, the owner is then required to investigate (i.e. a father who had witnessed his son's bad driving habits was held liable for negligent entrustment even though he had no knowledge of his son's driving record).
As you can see, the tort of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle can be complicated to prove or defend. If you are a plaintiff, you may need to sue the owner of the vehicle if some evidence exists that the owner may have had some knowledge or should have known through reasonable investigation of the driver's past reckless driving habits or bad driving record. You may need to sue the owner of the motor vehicle to recover enough for your injuries and damages if the driver is uninsured, has insufficient insurance, or is insolvent. Alternatively, if you have been sued for negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle and the plaintiff has no evidence to support each and every element of the cause of action, you will want to defend the case on no evidence grounds.
If you or your loved one has been seriously injured as the result of an automobile accident, trucking accident, eighteen wheeler accident, or motorcycle accident, call Sheadyn R Rogers of Rogers Law Firm at (361) 356-6057. Sheadyn R Rogers is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law and represented injured clients in the Corpus Christi, Tx metroplex and all of South Texas. For more information, please visit the firm's website at rogerslawtx.com.