Many vehicle collisions, especially large vehicle collisions, often involve wrongful death and other extremely catastrophic injuries. In wrongful death cases, damages usually include both economic losses, such as lost future financial support over the decedent’s expected lifetime, and noneconomic losses, such as loss of consortium (companionship).
But there is a problem. Georgia has one of the lowest auto insurance minimum requirements in the country. Furthermore, the $50,000 amount is divided between personal injury damages and property losses. That amount of money cannot begin to cover the extensive losses in large vehicle collisions. If the tortfeasor (negligent driver) lacks sufficient insurance coverage, it’s usually possible to sue the tortfeasor individually for the balance the insurance company does not cover. But that process is risky, time-consuming, and expensive.
Fortunately, Georgia also has some of the broadest vicarious liability rules in the country. These rules give victims an additional source of recovery in these cases. So, it’s much easier to obtain fair compensation for their injuries.
Employer Liability in Cobb County
If a truck driver or other commercial operator, like a taxi driver or Uber driver, causes a car crash, the respondeat superior (let the master answer) doctrine typically applies. Once upon a time, this doctrine was extremely limited. Employers were only vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their employees in a few limited circumstances. But a few recent cases, such as 2003’s May v. Crane Brothers and 2003’s Piedmont Hospital v. Palladino, significantly expanded this rule. Employers are now vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their employees if:
- Employee: In tax law, only people who receive W-2s and regular paychecks are employees. But in negligence law, any person that the employer controls is an employee. That control could involve work hours, providing a place to work, or influence over the way the work is done. So, under this expansive definition, owner-operators, independent contractors, and even most unpaid church volunteers are employees.
- Scope of Employment: Similarly, many people think of the “scope of employment” as a delivery driver working her regular shift. But in this context, the concept is much broader. Any activity which benefits the employer in any way is within the scope of employment. That could include driving an empty bus to the garage or operating a truck which bears the company’s logo.
- Foreseeable: For the most part, although they may not be inevitable or even likely, traffic accidents are always foreseeable. The one exception might be if a person steals a vehicle from the motor pool and causes a car crash, or some similar fact pattern.
Georgia is a modified joint and several liability state. SO, for the most part, each responsible party is theoretically 100 percent liable for the entire damage amount. One tortfeasor should not receive a windfall just because of something like respondeat superior.
In a few cases, this doctrine does not apply. That’s especially true in an intentional tort case, like an assault. Fortunately for victims, there are several other employer liability theories. For example, negligent hiring holds employers responsible for damages if they knowingly hire incompetent employees. Special rules apply if that incompetency includes a criminal record.
Alcohol Provider Liability in Georgia
The Peachtree State has a limited dram shop law which applies if the tortfeasor was under 21. In these cases, grocery stores, restaurants, pubs, and other commercial providers are liable for damages if they “willfully, knowingly, and unlawfully” sell alcohol to minors. Usually, the only issue is whether the provider knew the tortfeasor was under 21. The victim must also establish that the tortfeasor was “noticeably intoxicated” at the time of the sale. Evidence of intoxication includes watery eyes, unsteady balance, extreme disorientation, and slurred speech.
Limited defenses are available. The old “s/he looked older” defense usually does not fly. If the consumer produced a fake ID, that’s usually not a defense either.
Section 51-1-40 also applies to anyone who “furnishes” or “serves” alcohol. That could include a host who serves alcohol to intoxicated minors. Other claims, such as simple negligence, might be available as well.
The dram shop law may not apply to tortfeasors over 21, but vicarious liability may still be an option. Negligent undertaking is a good example. Assume Harry sees that Sally is intoxicated. Harry promises to call an Uber for Sally, but he fails to do so. Sally then drives home and causes a car crash. Under these facts, Harry might be vicariously liable for damages, even if Sally is over 21.
Owner Liability in Marietta
Vicarious liability may also apply to owners who allow people to use their cars. This rule is called negligent entrustment. The doctrine applies if the owner knowingly allows an incompetent person to use the car. Evidence of incompetency includes:
- No Drivers’ License: People without drivers’ licenses are usually incompetent as a matter of law. It does not matter how much driving experience they have or how stellar their driving records are.
- Bad Driving Record: A safety suspended license certainly qualifies as a bad driving record, a single speeding ticket probably does not qualify, and everything else is somewhere in between. The victim/plaintiff must also establish, by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not), that the owner knew about the bad driving record.
- Restriction Violation: Some licenses have restrictions like no nighttime driving, corrective lenses required, or no freeway driving. If the tortfeasor violated the condition, and the owner knew about the restriction, the negligent entrustment rule usually applies.
Commercial negligent entrustment cases, like Enterprise rental cars or U-Haul moving trucks, work differently. Because of the Graves Amendment, the victim/plaintiff must introduce additional evidence of negligence. However, this provision only applies to entities which are in the “trade or business” of renting vehicles, and that label has limited applicability.
Georgia is also a family purpose doctrine state. Assume Bill owns a car and his son, Ted, borrows it. If Ted causes a car crash, Bill may be liable for damages, even if Ted was not incompetent. That’s assuming Ted used the car for a family purpose, and that phrase is rather amorphous.
Contact an Aggressive Lawyer
The tortfeasor may not be the only party responsible for damages in a Cobb County negligence case. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Marietta, contact The Phillips Law Firm LLC. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.