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Understanding Michigan’s Owner’s Liability Statute in Auto Accidents
Are You Liable? Everything You Need to Know About Owner’s Liability in Car Accidents
When a car is being shared within the family, it might seem easy and convenient to allow your teenager to take your keys to meet their friends at the mall.
Here’s the problem: If your teenager is at fault for an accident they are involved in, the owner(s) of that vehicle can also be held liable for damages from the car accident even though you weren’t the negligent driver.
Keep reading to find out more about liability in accident claims and how you can protect yourself.
Who is Liable in an Auto Accident?
First, let’s address the basic question. In an auto accident, who’s liable: The owner, the driver, or both?
Let’s look at an example.
Say that Tom loans his car to his sister, Sara. Sara is then involved in a car accident where she is at fault. Who is liable?
In that case, Tom is also liable for the damage Sara caused. Why? It’s simple: Tom owns the vehicle and gave permission to Sara to drive his car.
Michigan’s Owner’s Liability Statute
Michigan has an owner’s liability statute, Section 257.401, which helps clarify liability.
It states that the owner of a motor vehicle is liable for injury caused by negligent operation of that vehicle, though they are only liable if their vehicle is being used with their express or implied consent or knowledge.
In other words, you’re not liable if your car is stolen and then gets in an accident, but you are liable if you let your child drive the car and they get into an accident. This is true whether permission was expressed or implied. Implied means it is based on circumstances and not on the actual words used.
Another instance in which an owner is liable for damages is what’s called negligent entrustment, which is similar to the family car doctrine.
Essentially, negligent entrustment involves entrusting your car to someone who is not fit to drive. This includes:
- Someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Someone with a history of reckless driving
- An elderly person with impaired sight or other health conditions that make it unsafe for them to drive
- Someone who is underage and/or unlicensed
- Someone who is inexperienced behind the wheel
In these cases, your liability rests on the idea that you knew someone should not be allowed behind the wheel and you still allowed them to drive your car anyway, putting others at risk of harm.
Finally, there’s negligent maintenance.
As the name implies, negligent maintenance is the failure to properly maintain your vehicle, putting others at risk of harm whenever your car is on the road.
This legal principle is due to the fact that you have an obligation to protect the safety of those in your car and those you share the road with. Doing so would reduce the risk of mechanical breakdowns that could cause an accident. Failure to properly maintain your vehicle could constitute a case of negligence.
This can include things like:
- Replacing brake lights and headlights
- Replacing faulty tires
- Replacing faulty brakes
- Removing vision obstructions like broken windshield, and large items hanging from rearview mirrors.
Essentially, if your car needs maintenance and you neglect it, and your neglect results in an accident, you can be held liable for any damages resulting from that accident.
Understanding Owner Liability in a Personal Injury Claim
Reading this, it might sound like the owner is always responsible no matter what.
Well, there are some cases where it’s a bit more complicated than that.
As a rule, you should assume that if a car is registered in your name then you are responsible for any damages caused should that car get into an accident.
However, a recent ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals complicates that. Under this ruling, the court stated that the owner may not be the only one held liable if their car is involved in an accident — under certain circumstances. The best way to explain is through an example.
Let’s say that you have a car. You loan that car to Bill. Then Bill loans that car to someone else — his son, for example. And let’s say that Bill knows his son isn’t licensed, lost his license, has too many points on his license, or is simply not a trustworthy person where driving is involved. Yet, Bill loans your car to his son anyway.
Then, Bill’s son gets in an accident. The auto accident victims were both injured.
In this case, two people are liable: You (the owner), and Bill.
Why is Bill liable? He is liable because he knew that his son wasn’t trustworthy and he loaned him the car anyway.
How to Protect Yourself
It starts by protecting yourself before an accident occurs.
A general rule is that when you purchase car insurance, that insurance covers everyone in your household unless they were specifically excluded or not disclosed on the insurance application. Friends and relatives living outside the house may be included under the rule of permissive use.
Under the rule of permissive use, the friend or relative who drives your car is covered under your insurance. If they’re involved in an accident, you’re the one who has to file a claim with your insurance company. The friend’s insurance is secondary, so if damages exceed your coverage, the friend’s insurance pays the remainder.
In addition to making sure your car insurance covers the right people, you have to be careful about how a car is titled.
If your spouse is involved in an accident in a jointly-titled car, both of you are liable for pain and suffering and other compensation sought by the accident victim. In addition, the other party can go after other joint assets such as your house or other joint assets.
Giroux Pappas Trial Attorneys have a roster of experienced attorneys ready to help you figure out the best course of action for your case. If you need to speak with a car accident attorney, click here to get started with your free consultation.
The skilled team of attorneys at our offices in Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Boyne City, Grand Rapids, and Southfield are prepared to fight for a positive outcome in your owner liability case. Our personal injury law firm represents clients throughout Michigan.