When is a Car Owner Liable for “Negligent Entrustment” of a Vehicle?

If you are injured in a car accident caused by another driver’s negligence, you may have a case against the owner of the car under a legal principle known as negligent entrustment. Under Georgia law, an owner is liable for negligent entrustment if he or she allows someone to use a vehicle despite “actual knowledge” the person is incompetent to drive, either due to “age or inexperience,” “physical or mental condition,” or a “known habit of recklessness.” So, for example, if you allow your unlicensed 15-year-old child to drive your car and she gets into an accident that seriously injures someone, you are liable under negligent entrustment because you knew your child was not of legal driving age and lacked experience.

Brendle v. Templeton

Negligent entrustment is not always so obvious. Here is another illustration from a case currently pending before a federal court in Gainesville, Georgia. A driver fell asleep at the wheel and subsequently got into an accident, injuring the plaintiff. At the time of the accident, the driver was driving his sister’s vehicle, which she allowed him to use.

The plaintiff subsequently sued both the driver and the sister, alleging the latter was liable for negligent entrustment. More specifically, the plaintiff cited the fact that the driver was taking two prescription medications—along with two non-prescribed ones—that directly impaired his ability to drive. According to a report prepared by a police officer at the scene of the accident, the driver “was heavily under the influence” of drugs, noting his “speech was slurred, he was unsteady on his feet, all of his eye and body movements were in slow motion and his pupils were pinpoint.” The sister also told the police her brother “was not acting right” when he came to borrow her car, yet she apparently thought nothing of it.

Despite this, the sister maintained in court that she lacked “actual knowledge” of her brother’s impairment and asked the judge to grant her summary judgment. The judge declined to do so. While acknowledging the sister’s “knowledge of her brother’s daily prescription use” was not sufficient in and of itself to prove negligent entrustment, the fact that she told the police he “was not acting right” created enough of a factual dispute to survive summary judgment. Even though the sister is not professionally trained to spot whether a person is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, the judge said she does “possess special information about her brother, including his typical mannerisms and behavior,” that could allow a jury to determine she had “actual knowledge” of her brother’s incapacity.

The judge did agree with the sister that the plaintiff presented insufficient evidence to prove her brother had a “known habit of recklessness,” which is also grounds for negligent entrustment liability. There was simply no evidence that the brother was driving recklessly at the time of the accident—he merely fell asleep, purportedly due to his intoxicated state. Furthermore, this standard requires a “habit” of reckless driving. The plaintiff could only cite a single prior accident involving the brother from several years earlier, which the judge noted was apparently due to another driver’s negligence.

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