Auto Accidents:  When Is the Owner Liable?

Automobile accidents can cause serious and life-altering personal injuries, and when they happen, what might seem like a “simple” car accident case can get very complicated.  This is because the biggest issue in these cases very often becomes finding sufficient insurance coverage to fairly compensate those who are injured.  In many of these cases, liability may be conceded; the real dispute becomes which insurance policies provide additional coverage.

Obviously, the negligent driver can be held responsible for any catastrophic personal injuries caused in a given accident, but in many serious accidents, the driver’s insurance policy coverage may be insufficient to cover the damages awarded.  In this situation, unfortunately, a permanently and catastrophically injured person may not be able to collect their full damages.

At Decof, Decof & Barry, however, our attorneys have significant experience in identifying parties other than the negligent auto driver who may be liable for damages and whose insurance policies are available.

For example, under certain circumstances, the owner of a vehicle may be liable for the negligent operation of the vehicle by another person simply due to their ownership of the vehicle.  Such “vicarious liability” attaches even in the absence of negligence by the owner of the vehicle.  As car rentals, leases, loaners, and shared cars (think “Zipcars”) have become more common, the relationships among all the parties involved in these transactions have become more complicated.  Consequently, the question of who is responsible (and whose insurance is available) has also become more complex.  This is especially true now that several different state and federal laws govern owner liability.

Having a detailed working knowledge of the state and federal statutes governing liability in these situations becomes imperative. That’s why it’s important that you hire a personal injury law firm with the experience and expertise required to identify all avenues of recovery.  In addition, the firm must have the wherewithal to handle personal injury lawsuits involving multiple defense attorneys representing multiple corporate defendants and multiple insurance companies.

At Decof, Decof & Barry, we have been — and continue to be — at the forefront in these complicated coverage cases involving auto accidents.  For example, our firm won a precedent-setting Rhode Island Supreme Court case which held that lessors of motor vehicles were subject to vicarious liability.  As a result of this Supreme Court victory, our catastrophically injured client was able to recover millions of dollars of personal injury damages beyond the negligent driver’s policy limits.  See Oliveira v. Lombardi, 794 A.2d 453 (R.I. 2002).  Similarly, in February of 2015, our firm won a multimillion dollar judgment at trial against the owner and lessor of an automobile on behalf on our permanently injured client.  The firm’s experience and skill in pursuing these additional parties has allowed us to recover millions more in personal injury damages than would have otherwise been available under the negligent driver’s insurance policy alone.

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