Can I sue the owner of a vehicle for lending their vehicle to an incompetent driver?
Juan owns a Ford F150 pickup truck. His neighbor Larry doesn’t have a truck and would like to borrow it to take some trash to the dump. On the way home from the dump, Larry runs a red light and T-bones a vehicle driven by Maricela and her daughter Mia. Both Maricela and Mia are seriously injured in the car accident.
It turns out Larry lost his license three years before the accident because he had received several moving violations and had been involved in two accidents that were his fault. After the accident, Larry moves to Mexico and cannot be located ever again. Maricela comes to our office and wants justice. After an exhaustive search, we discover that suing Larry is not possible because he cannot be located. The question now becomes whether we can sue Juan, the owner of the vehicle, for loaning the vehicle to Larry.
In this post, we will look at how we might hold Juan responsible for Maricela and Mia’s injuries under the doctrine of negligent entrustment.
What is negligent entrustment?
Negligent entrustment is a general legal doctrine by which a vehicle owner may be held liable for the negligent acts of whomever he or she entrusts to use their vehicle. Texas provides a cause of action (a right of recovery) where a person negligently entrusts his or her vehicle to another person. To meet the burden of proof, the Plaintiff (the injured party) must prove:
- The owner entrusted his or her vehicle to another person;
- That person was an unlicensed, incompetent or a reckless driver;
- The owner knew or should have known that the driver was unlicensed, incompetent or reckless;
- The driver was in fact negligent on the occasion in question; and
- The driver’s negligence caused the Plaintiff’s injuries.
See 4Front Engineered Solutions, Inc. v. Rosales, 505 S.W.3d 905, 909 (Tex. 2016).
To prove ownership for negligent entrustment purposes, the Plaintiff can show that the person either owned the vehicle or had control over the vehicle. Hence, a nonowner of a vehicle can be held liable if the nonowner had the right to control the vehicle. For instance, if a son entrusts his parent’s car to a friend, the son is an “owner” of the vehicle for negligent entrustment purposes.
One can show ownership by presenting proof of the certificate of title to the vehicle as proof of ownership. The plaintiff can also introduce evidence of the owner’s liability insurance to show proof of ownership.
Entrustment is proved by showing that the owner permitted the driver to use the vehicle. Once permission is given, the fact that the vehicle was being used for the original purpose is not controlling. See Spratling v. Butler, 240 S.W.2d 1016, 1017 (Tex. 1951).
Unlicensed, Incompetent or Reckless Driver
In Texas, there is a duty not to allow an unlicensed driver to operate a vehicle. Texas Transportation Code Section 521.458. The Texas Supreme Court has said, “The entrustment of a vehicle to one who has no driver’s license is negligence per se. If afterward such driver operates the vehicle negligently and thereby causes damages to a third person, proximate cause is shown between the negligence of the party controlling the vehicle and the damage to the third person.” Mundy v. Pirie-Slaughter Motor Co., 206 S.W.2d 587 (Tex. 1947). Negligence per se means that the conduct is considered negligent because it violates a statute (or regulation). On the other hand, a legally required, unrestricted license is prima facie (accepted as correct until proven otherwise) evidence of a party’s competence to drive. Without specific evidence that the driver was otherwise incompetent at the time of entrustment, the case will be dismissed in favor of the defendant. See Avalos v. Brown Auto Ctr., Inc., 63 S.W.3e 42, 28 (Tex. App.- San Antonio 2001, no pet.).
A driver’s incompetence or recklessness is determined at the time of the entrustment. You must show that the driver was more than merely negligent. Evidence of conduct after the time of entrustment is not admissible. Generally, one prior bad act will not prove that the driver was reckless or incompetent. One needs to show many prior bad acts of recklessness or incompetence to prevail in a negligent entrustment claim. The following are some of the types of evidence that we would use on a case by case basis to prove incompetence or recklessness:
- Prior accidents
- Prior citations
- Driver’s driving history and habits
- Driver’s condition or state or situation at the time of entrustment (for instance, lending a vehicle to a person under the influence of alcohol)
To win a negligent entrustment claim, the Plaintiff must show that the owner either knew or should have known about the driver’s incompetence or recklessness at the time of the entrustment. There is generally no duty to investigate further if the driver provides to the owner a valid driver’s license. However, the owner may have a duty to further investigate if there is additional evidence at the time of entrustment which might show that the driver is incompetent or reckless.
Driver’s Negligence Caused Injury to Plaintiff
Finally, you must be able to prove that the driver to whom the vehicle was entrusted was negligent and caused injury. This must be proved in every automobile accident case. If the driver isn’t at fault for causing the accident, then the owner will not be held liable. One must also prove that the driver’s negligence was the cause of the injuries suffered.
In our fact pattern above, we are able to show that Juan is responsible for negligently entrusting his vehicle to Larry. Larry did not have a license to drive. The entrustment to Larry by Juan is “negligence per se” because it violates a statute found in the Texas Transportation Code prohibiting lending a vehicle to an unlicensed driver.
There are many times when the injured party may need to sue the owner of the vehicle in addition to or instead of the at-fault driver. For instance:
- The injuries exceed the driver’s liability insurance limits; or
- The driver cannot be sued or is insolvent or does not maintain liability insurance.
When our clients are seriously injured in an accident, we look at all potential sources of recovery, including holding the owner of the vehicle responsible for negligently entrusting their vehicle to an unlicensed, incompetent or reckless driver. If you or your loved one has been seriously injured as the result of an automobile accident, call the personal injury lawyers at Harmonson Law Firm, P.C. at (915) 228-4140 or contact us online. Our office is located in El Paso, Texas and we represent car accident victims throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.