In many car accident cases, the jury must determine which driver is at fault, as it may not be entirely clear from the evidence presented. Usually if a driver is negligent, or did not use reasonable care or caution while driving, he or she will be at fault. However, there are times when the courts will find that an individual or entity is at fault even if they were not actually operating the vehicle or even present at the time of the accident.
Liability can be imposed on such an individual or entity under a negligent entrustment theory. Negligent entrustment occurs when the owner of a motor vehicle entrusts it to someone the owner knows, or should know, is incapable of using the vehicle properly and a third party is injured. However, negligent entrustment is a separate cause of action. This means that liability on the part of motor vehicle owner does not attach simply because the person who borrowed and operated the vehicle is deemed at fault. The negligent entrustment theory of liability requires an initial finding that the person who drove the motor vehicle was causally negligent before the negligence case against the owner of the motor vehicle may proceed. Thereafter, the plaintiff must present evidence to support the negligent entrustment theory by establishing that the owner knew or should have known the dangers presenting by entrusting the vehicle to the driver.
With this in mind, it is important to remember that the automobile owner may still ultimately be liable. Common examples of when a motor vehicle owner may be liable for damage or injuries as a result of lending the motor vehicle to another driver include: lending a vehicle to a minor child or other new driver who just obtained their license but does not have experience; lending a vehicle to a driver who is visibly intoxicated or drugged; lending a car to a friend for racing or other reckless purposes or to a friend who has a history of reckless driving; or lending a car to an elderly or ill individual whose condition makes him or her unfit to drive.
Car accidents in Pennsylvania are also complicated by the fact that the state is a “choice no fault state,” which means that when you purchase car insurance, you have the obligation to opt into or out of the choice no fault insurance system. If you opt into the no fault system, claims, including those for negligent entrustment, may be more limited.