Negligent entrustment is an issue that frequently arises in car accident cases. The basic idea is that if the defendant “entrusts” his own vehicle to someone who subsequently injures a third party, the third party can seek damages against the defendant if he had “actual knowledge that the driver is incompetent or habitually reckless,” according to a 2010 decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. So, for example, if you loan your car to someone you know has a history of drunk driving, and that person proceeds to get drunk and plow your car into a minivan, the passengers in the minivan can sue you under the theory of negligent entrustment.
Cullara v. Building & Earth Sciences, Inc.
The Court of Appeals recently addressed the applicability of negligent entrustment in another case where the defendant disputes whether it had actual knowledge of a driver’s recklessness.
In this case, the plaintiff was in a car accident with a vehicle owned by the defendant. The defendant, a corporation, allowed one of its employees to use a company-owned vehicle to run a personal errand. The employee consumed several alcoholic beverages before operating the vehicle and colliding with the plaintiff. The employee subsequently pleaded guilty to a DUI charge.
The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant under the theory of negligent entrustment. The employee, it turned out, had a long history of prior DUI arrests. The question was whether the defendant knew about this history prior to letting him use its car.
The employee did not list any DUI convictions when he filled out a job application with the defendant. But the employee also testified that when he was interviewed for his job he told the interviewer “everything” about his past, including a 2002 DUI conviction, although he “did not specify” how many other drunk driving arrests were on his record.
The defendant’s human resources director testified that the company only performed a motor vehicle report for the three years preceding the employee’s application, which returned a “clean driving history.” For some reason, the defendant did not perform a state-level criminal background check, which would have revealed the earlier DUI convictions, and there was no criminal history report in the employee’s file.
Before the trial court, the defendant argued it was not negligent because it had no actual knowledge of the employee’s drunk driving history aside from the lone 2002 conviction. The judge agreed this was not enough to sustain the plaintiff’s case and granted summary judgment to the defendant.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge, however, holding the lower court “disregarded” conflicting testimony from the employee about what he actually told the defendant about his record. The employee acknowledged that at the time of his job interview he had “more than four DUI convictions” and that the defendant “was totally informed” about his prior alcohol and drug history. While the employee “may have at times been unclear” about exactly what he told the interviewer, the Court of Appeals said his testimony was sufficient for the plaintiff to allege the defendant had actual knowledge of the his multiple DUI convictions, which at this stage was enough to defeat the defendant’s summary judgment motion.