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What is Vicarious Liability in a Car Accident Case and Why Does It Matter?

Auto Accident Attorney

Establishing liability, or legal responsibility for a collision, is the most important component of a car crash claim. But many times, the fight for fair compensation does not end at this point.

Most people are judgement-proof. In many cases, if the tortfeasor (negligent driver) has insufficient insurance coverage, the judgement might as well be a piece of paper. That’s especially true in wrongful death and other catastrophic injury claims.

Unfortunately, Illinois has one of the highest amount of uninsured drivers in the country. Additionally, the Prairie State has one of the lowest auto insurance minimum requirements in the United States. So, there is a good chance a tortfeasor will be uninsured or underinsured.

Fortunately, Illinois also has some of the broadest vicarious liability rules in the country. Many times, the tortfeasor is not the only party responsible for damages. If that’s the case, the victim/plaintiff has an additional source of recovery.

Owner Liability

The negligent entrustment theory states owners who allow incompetent drivers to use their vehicles are responsible for damages if the incompetent driver causes a car crash. This doctrine comes up frequently if the tortfeasor was a teenager. People under 18 cannot own property. Friends and relatives also allow other friends and relatives to borrow their vehicles from time-to-time.

To establish negligent entrustment, victim/plaintiffs can use either direct or circumstantial evidence to establish incompetency:

  • Direct Evidence: People with no drivers’ license or a safety-suspended drivers’ license are usually incompetent as a matter of law. It does not matter how carefully they drive, or how much driving experience they have.
  • Circumstantial Evidence: A number of at-fault accidents, traffic tickets, or near-miss collisions could establish incompetency. The same is true if the driver is in a new area or is not used to driving in adverse conditions, like at night.

Because of the Graves Amendment, commercial negligent entrustment cases work differently. If the tortfeasor was operating an Enterprise, U-Haul, or other rental vehicle, the owner is not automatically responsible for damages, even if the tortfeasor was incompetent. The victim/plaintiff must introduce additional evidence in these cases.

Alcohol Provider Liability

Restaurants, bars, grocery stores and other commercial alcohol providers may be liable for damages if their impaired patrons cause car crashes. Illinois has one of the broadest dram shop laws in the country. It applies if:

  • The vendor sold alcohol to the tortfeasor,
  • That alcohol materially contributed to the tortfeasor’s impairment, and
  • Alcohol impairment substantially caused the crash.

Assume Tom has a glass of wine at a restaurant and some alcohol-spiked punch at a party. If Tom runs a red light on the way home and causes a crash, the restaurant may be liable for damages. It does not matter that Tom had been drinking elsewhere or that alcohol impairment did not directly cause the car crash.

In some cases, social hosts may be liable for damages under the dram shop law as well. That’s especially true if an additional theory, like negligent undertaking, applies as well.

Employer Liability

If an Uber driver, truck driver, taxi driver, or other commercial operator causes a car crash, the respondeat superior theory usually applies. This doctrine has two elements:

  • Employee: If the employer controlled the tortfeasor in any tangible way, the tortfeasor was an employee. That control could be something like regulating work hours or providing any tools necessary to do the job,
  • Scope of Employment: Similarly, any act which benefits the employer in any way is within the scope of employment. Such an act could be driving an empty car around town which has the corporate logo. In that case, the employer benefits from the free advertising.

Other employer liability theories, which mostly apply in assault and other intentional tort cases, include negligent hiring and negligent supervision.

Work with Experienced Attorneys

Illinois’ broad vicarious liability rules are very important in many car crash cases. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Rockford, contact Fisk & Monteleone, Ltd. We routinely handle matters in Winnebago County and nearby jurisdictions.