Naming Vehicle Owners As Defendants In Car Accident Lawsuits

We are often asked whether the owner of a vehicle can be named in a lawsuit for personal injury arising from a car accident.  The answer to this question is “yes,” though establishing liability against the car’s owner is more complicated than simply proving ownership.

The most common theories of liability against the owner of a vehicle who was not physically driving the car at the time of the accident are “negligent entrustment” and “respondent superior.”  Negligent entrustment claims arise when the vehicle’s owner failed to exercise the care of a reasonably prudent person in allowing the at-fault driver to use the car.  This, in turn, requires proving that the owner had some reason to know that the driver posed a particular danger on the roads, such as a history of car accidents or DUIs.

Another common theory of liability of against a vehicle owner is respondent superior.  “Respondeat superior” is latin for “let the master answer,” and applies when an employee causes injury to a third person in the course and scope of work being performed for their employer.  In this case, the employer–the “master”–must assume responsibility for the employee’s negligence.

Of course, not all vehicle owners are employers of the people who get in accidents driving their cars, but for obvious reasons, it’s not an uncommon relationship, either, and often cannot be ruled out until the plaintiff has had an opportunity to conduct some preliminary discovery.

In summary, it is important to never overlook owners as defendants in personal injury suits.  Very often, owners are the ones with the financial resources to pay a judgment beyond the insurance policy limits, and a plaintiff who does not name owners as defendants early in litigation may subsequently be barred from doing so by the applicable statute of limitations.