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Court summarily dismisses negligence case brought against owner of car driven by unidentified driver

Larry Klein was hurt in a car accident.  He was on his way to a jobsite in a car owned by his wife, but driven by an acquaintance whom he only knew by a first name.  The evidence apparently established that he couldn't drive, but his wife would allow him to use the car if it was operated by a licensed driver; on the date of injury, he had recruited a man named "Derrick" to drive him to a jobsite.  After the collision occurred, Derrick drove the plaintiff back to the Party Store where they had met, and the plaintiff wasn't able to confirm his last name.

When Klein attempted to sue to recover for the injuries he suffered and couldn't identify "Derrick's" last name, he relied on the owner liability statute that holds the vehicle owner responsible for the negligence of the driver, if there is a chain of custody, as there was here.  Klein could not confirm what "Derrick" did wrong to cause the accident, however, and relied upon the presumption of fault arising out of a rear-end collision.  The car's insurer sought summary disposition, arguing that it should not be held accountable because the owner's passive, "vicarious" liability should not apply in this circumstance.

The trial judge agreed and granted summary disposition.  Klein appealed.  Among other arguments, Klein pointed to established precedent that presumes fault on the part of a driver who leaves the scene of an accident.  The court ruled that this precedent did not apply where "Derrick" drove the victim back to the Party Store where they met.   It also rejected the argument that "Derrick" should be presumed at fault because he enjoyed exclusive control of the instrumentality of injury.  All-in-all, it appears to be a case driven more by circumstances than by logic:  the court didn't like holding the absent, passive owner's insurer responsible for the conduct of a driver recruited by the "victim."

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