There is a provision of federal law that bars a claim of vicarious liability against rental car companies in cases where a customer/driver negligently causes a traffic crash resulting in injury or death. The so-called “Graves Amendment” was passed in 2004 and and preempted the vicarious liability laws of 15 states that allowed such action – including Florida and New York.

trucksontheroadNow, a judge presiding over a New York case stemming from a fatal highway accident has ruled the “Graves” defense won’t shield the corporate owner of a leased truck operated by a man watching laptop pornography. The truck driver veered off the road and struck a disabled vehicle, killing the driver inside. Naples car accident lawyers know these kinds of cases illustrate how litigation can, over time, narrow the scope of compensation for the injured.

The Graves Amendment was passed after it was inserted into a $287 billion federal transportation bill that spanned 834 pages. There were no committee hearings or reports issued prior to its passage, and members of the House of Representatives discussed it for just 20 minutes before approving it.

Although Florida has one of the broadest vicarious liability laws in the country with regard to owners of vehicles (as the state considers automobiles a type of “dangerous instrumentality”), the Graves Amendment supersedes these provisions by holding short and long-term lessors of cars can’t be held financially responsible for crashes.

Rental car companies had voiced strong opposition to vicarious liability laws that allowed them to be held financially responsible for crashes involving customers because, they argued, they weren’t legally allowed to turn away qualified customers. Once the keys were in the driver’s hands, they argued, they had no control of the car.

However, the Graves Amendment has been used with broader applications beyond rental car companies.

In Stratton v. Wallace, the U.S. District Court in the Western District of New York determined the leasing firm of the tractor-trailer will not be shielded from legal liability. In rendering his decision, Judge Richard Arcara specifically criticized the lack of debate when Congress passed the Graves Amendment, and slammed its “poor craftsmanship.”

The facts of the case stretch back to 2009 on the New York State Thruway.

A 33-year-old driver struck a deer, and her car was inoperable. While she waited for assistance, she was killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of her vehicle. The driver, who it was later determined was surfing pornography sites while behind the wheel, was sentenced to serve between 3 and 9 years in prison for second-degree manslaughter.

Following the criminal case, the victim’s husband filed suit against not just the driver and the driver’s employer, but also the company that owned the tractor-trailer and the parent company of both the employer and the owner of the vehicle.

The vehicle owner defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, citing the Graves Amendment, saying it trumped state law indicating vehicle owners can be held liable for crashes involving their vehicle, even if someone else was driving it at the time.

While the magistrate judge granted the defense request, the federal judge reversed. He noted in this particular case the lessor and lessee are in fact owned by the same parent company. The judge went so far as to include a diagram to explain his decision. He noted this was not a straightforward Graves Amendment case, wherein the operator and owner are connected by a limited contract. The relationship between lessor and lessee here is more substantial, as evidenced by the fact they are owned by the same firm.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

“Graves” Defense is Rejected in Fatal Highway Accident, Aug. 12, 2014, By John Caher, New York Law Journal

More Blog Entries:

Miccosukee Tribe v. Bermudez – Florida Wrongful Death Judgment Reversed, July 27, 2014, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog