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Owner Liability in Car Accident Litigation

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Sometimes the owner of a motor vehicle can be liable for injuries caused by the driver of their car, even though they are neither driving nor at the accident scene, on the basis of their ownership and their grant of permission for the at-fault driver to use the car.

Vicarious Liability for Car Owners

Where a car owner lets another person drive a car, most jurisdictions will treat the car owner as sharing liability for any accident caused by the borrower. The car owner's liability may be predicated on statute, or on common law principles such as negligent entrustment. From a public policy perspective, owner liability helps ensure that there will be insurance coverage for the accident, as the owner of a car will typically be insured. A borrower of a car is less likely to be insured.

Owner liability ordinarily invovles the permissive use of a vehicle. That is, the owner gives the borrower permission to use the car, or knowingly acquiesces in their use of the vehicle. Depending upon state law, in the event of an accident a member of the owner's household may be presumed to be driving with the owner's permission.

Owner liability does not ordinarily extend to non-permissive uses of a car, although an owner's negligence may sometimes cause liability to follow even where a car is stolen. For example, some jurisdictions will hold an owner liable if they leave the keys in the ignition of the car, and their car is stolen and subsequently invovled in an accident.

Where the owner of a vehicle is a government agency, sovereign immunity may apply.

Risks Following the Sale of a Used Car

Car owners who sell their cars sometimes make serious errors in judgment when selling their vehicles, which can give rise to subsequent claims against them.

"Lending" License Plates - Sometimes the car owner will let the buyer use the plates that are on the car. The only reasons for a buyer to want to keep the old plates are to avoid registering the car, or to avoid buying insurance for the car. Car buyers are generally permitted to drive a newly purchased use car from the point of sale to their home, or to a location where they can register the vehicle, even without having plates on the car. There is no reason why a car seller should permit a buyer to keep the license plates.

Failing To Complete Title Work - Following the successful sale of a vehicle, the seller should fill in the necessary information on the title to transfer ownership. Ideally this will be done at a DMV office, such that the buyer can immediately transfer the title. If that is not possible or is determined to be inconvenient, the seller should keep a copy of the completed, dated transfer of title.

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