Washington Vehicle Owner Not Liable for Accident Caused by Non-Permissive Driver

A vehicle owner may be liable for the negligence of a driver if the driver was acting as the owner’s agent, and the owner controlled or had the right to control details of the physical movement of the agent.  Both parties must consent to the principal-agent relationship.

A Washington appeals court recently considered whether an owner was vicariously liable for the negligence of a driver who had taken the vehicle without permission in an unpublished case.  The driver was returning the vehicle to the owner at the time of the collision.

The driver of the vehicle was the adult son of the owners.  He did not live with his parents at the time of the collision, but he would sometimes visit and spend the night.  According to the court’s opinion, the parents had made it clear to the son that he was not allowed to use the vehicle.  He took the vehicle on May 23 or 24, 2014, while they were gone.

Upon discovering the vehicle was gone, the parents suspected their son had taken it.  The father called his son and demanded he return the vehicle.  According to the opinion, the parents contacted the son multiple times by phone and text, asking him to return the vehicle.  They threatened to call the police.  They looked for the vehicle in the neighborhood and at places they knew their son frequented.  The son struck the plaintiff while driving the car back to his parents’ house on May 26.

The plaintiff filed suit against the son and his parents.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the parents.  An arbiter subsequently awarded the plaintiff more than $40,000 from the son.  The plaintiff then appealed the dismissal of her claims against the parents.  On appeal, she argued that the son had been acting as his parents’ agent at the time of the collision because he was following their instructions to return the vehicle.

The owner’s liability is dependent on whether the owner had the right to control the agent’s movement.  The owner does not necessarily have to exercise the right to control, as long as the right is there.

The plaintiff argued that the parents controlled the time, destination, purpose, and means of the son’s movement.  Specifically, the time was immediate.  The destination was the parents’ home.  The purpose was to return the vehicle, and the means was driving the vehicle.

The appeals court noted, however, that the agency relationship only exists if the principal agrees to the agent’s conduct.  The parents had not asked or even given the son permission to take possession of the vehicle.  In fact, they had informed him that he was not allowed to use the vehicle.  He took it without their knowledge or permission, and he kept it even after they demanded its immediate return.  The appeals court found that the son’s “defiance demonstrates the parents’ complete lack of control.”

The appeals court also noted that a vehicle owner is not liable for the negligent act of someone who unlawfully took the vehicle.  The plaintiff argued that the son’s possession and use of the vehicle became permissive, for the parents’ benefit, and under their control once they requested he return it.  The plaintiff also argued that there was at least an issue of fact that would preclude summary judgment.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s argument.  The court held that a demand for the return of wrongfully taken property is insufficient to create even a question of fact regarding the owner’s right of control over the person in possession of the vehicle.  The appeals court affirmed the summary judgment.

The plaintiff in this case was unsuccessful in showing that an agency relationship existed.  The existence of an agency relationship and the right to control are both generally fact questions, however.  In any case in which the driver of the at-fault vehicle was not the vehicle’s owner, a plaintiff should explore the possibility of an agency relationship and the vicarious liability of the owner.  Our Washington car accident attorneys have a thorough understanding of vicarious liability law.  If you’ve been hurt in an automobile accident, call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.

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