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Father Not Liable for Adult Son Who Stole Car, Drove Drunk

If you are injured in an automobile accident due to another driver’s negligence, you may have a claim not only against the driver, but also the owner of the vehicle (assuming they are not the same person). Tennessee law presumes the owner of a motor vehicle consented to the driver’s use of said vehicle, and therefore is liable for any accident caused by the driver’s negligence. This is only a presumption, however, and the owner may submit evidence demonstrating he or she did not give the driver consent to use the vehicle.

Of course, it is not enough for the owner to simply declare they never gave the driver permission. Any such declaration would be self-serving. The owner must be able to corroborate any such denial with “objective” evidence.

A Recent Tennessee Example

Here is a recent example. In April 2011, a North Carolina man took his father’s minivan and drove into Tennessee, where he had an accident with another minivan. The father reported the minivan as stolen to the local sheriff’s office. His son was arrested in Loudon County, Tennessee, for driving under the influence of alcohol. He later pleaded guilty in Loudon County criminal court to charges of vehicular assault, evading arrest and theft.

The driver and passengers from the other vehicle later sued the father, alleging he was negligent for “failing to anticipate his adult son might take his vehicle without authority” and drive drunk. The case was heard by a federal judge in Knoxville applying Tennessee law. (Federal courts have jurisdiction when, as was the case here, the plaintiffs and defendants are from different states.)

On May 21 of this year, U.S. District Judge Pamela L. Reeves dismissed the plaintiffs’ case against the father. Judge Reeves acknowledged the plaintiffs established a rebuttable presumption the father was liable for the accident as the owner of the vehicle. But she said the fact the son admitted, in a criminal proceeding, he took the minivan without permission, combined with the father reporting the vehicle stolen to the sheriff was sufficient to overcome the presumption.

Judge Reeves also said the father was not liable under Tennessee common law for negligence. Tennessee courts have said a vehicle owner is negligent when he leaves his keys “in a position where a thief could easily steal the car and drive it away” and subsequently injures someone with the car. Indeed, Tennessee law expressly forbids an owner from leaving a vehicle running and unattended. But that was not the case here, Judge Reeves explained. The father did not leave his car unattended with the keys in the ignition. Rather, he was asleep when the son took the keys from inside the house. Judge Reeves said she was not aware of any Tennessee case holding an owner liable “for theft of a vehicle when the keys were taken from within the owner’s home without the knowledge or consent of the owner.”

Reach Out to Our Attorneys

The above case illustrates how complex negligence law can be when determining fault for an automobile accident. This is why you should never go into court without the help of an experienced Knoxville-area personal injury attorney. The lawyers at Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette are ready to assist you with your case today.

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