Vehicle Owner Responsibility

Are Vehicle Owners Responsible in Massachusetts Crashes?

The short answer is yes.  In a Massachusetts motor vehicle collision between two or more vehicles, one driver is usually considered responsible.  When someone is injured, the victim may file a claim, and or a lawsuit against the driver.  Once the injured party proves negligence against the driver, the issue becomes how badly injured is the victim and what can be paid to compensate him or her.

Vicarious Liability

But why do owners get sued?  Are they, too, responsible?  The answer is the legal concept of vicarious liability.   The translation from Latin means, “let the master answer.”  As a practical matter, this legal doctrine says that the owner of a vehicle has a legal relationship to the injured party.  He was the owner of the vehicle so, he is responsible, by law, of that vehicle injures someone.   Note, this does not relieve the driver of responsibility, but adds the owner.  This way, as a practical matter the insurance company for the owner of the vehicle must step in, investigate and work toward resolving the claim or lawsuit.  If the claim is resolved, the insurance company will pay for the settlement or judgment, up to the amount of insurance the owner purchased.

How does this work practically, in the real world?  If you own a vehicle and your spouse, child, or friend uses the vehicle, with permission, and causes a collision, you are responsible.  Remember, this is civil law.  You are, of course, not responsible in any way criminally.  Thus, the extent of your responsibility is to pay a claim or judgment as a result of the driver’s negligence.

Insurance Claims and Vicarious Liability

Okay, so what happens to you the owner if there is a claim?  You report the collision to your insurance company.  They may take a statement from you regarding the driver having your permission to use the vehicle.  After that, you, the owner, are mostly free from this claim because your insurance company has a duty to resolve the claim and to get a release to protect you.

Lawsuits and Vicarious Liability

Unless, the claim does not resolve.  Then, the injured party may file a lawsuit.; a deputy sheriff or process server will serve papers to your doorstep.  You have been sued, even though you were not the driver, because of the legal theory of vicarious liability.  Again, your insurance company has an obligation to defend you; that is, they will pay a lawyer who will work toward resolution.  One important goal of your lawyer is to keep a judgment against you that exceeds the amount of insurance you have.  This is because if the injured plaintiff gets a jury award for more than your insurance policy limits, you, personally, can be held responsible to pay that portion of the judgment.

When to Get a Lawyer in a Vicarious Liability Case

What do you do?  If your insurance professionals determine that you personally are not in danger of a judgment that exceeds the amount of insurance coverage you have, you are, essentially free to allow your insurance trial lawyer and insurance company to work towards resolution.  If your insurance company determines that you are at risk, you should get a lawyer.  We have represented motor vehicle owners for over 27 years for this type of excess coverage in Massachusetts.

For example, the law says you only need to have $20,000 in insurance coverage.  However, if you lend your car to a neighbor and she skids on ice and seriously injures a pedestrian in a crosswalk, you may be in danger of a judgment that vastly exceeds the insurance coverage you have.  You should get an experienced Massachusetts personal injury lawyer because you are in danger of losing assets, including your home.

Your personal counsel will work with the insurance defense lawyer that your insurance company has assigned to you.  The insurance defense lawyer is usually competent; however, he or she is not used to worrying about your personal assets.  Your private lawyer will be in a position to push the insurance lawyer and the insurance company to resolve the case within the policy limits.  Your private lawyer, if he or she is experienced, will be able to see any and all mistakes made, or holes in both sides’ evidence, and use them to your advantage.    If there is any question, secure your own attorney.

Your lawyer will also advise you to purchase more liability insurance to protect yourself in the future.  And, she or he should advise you to get sufficient Massachusetts underinsurance coverage as well.

In Massachusetts, you can be held responsible to any and all persons injured by your motor vehicle.  Vicarious liability protects injured parties; get yourself protected as well.