Was Father Liable For Injury to Third Party?
Hugo Rodriguez sued Robin Sanchez and his father, Roman Sanchez. The undisputed facts were simple. Robin was driving his father’s van when he hit Rodriguez’s car. Robin claimed that Rodriguez rolled into his car, a claim which Rodriguez dismissed as patently false. Robin fled from the scene, only returning when Roman was able to reach him, after the police contacted his father.
Roman moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint as against him. The basis for Roman’s motion was that he claims that his son was driving the vehicle without his permission, such that he should not be liable for the accident pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388.
Roman testified at his deposition that Robin was never authorized to drive his vehicles. Robin corroborated that at his deposition, although he also stated that his plan was to move the vehicle to their shared driveway. Roman and Robin allegedly live in separate units in the same house. Roman testified that the keys were in his apartment prior to the accident. In contrast, Robin testified that the keys were at Roman’s workplace, adjacent to his workplace (the two businesses were separate, but owned by a grandfather and grandson). Rodriguez pointed out that Roman did not file charges against Robin for taking the car without permission.
Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(1) provides that the owner of a motor vehicle is liable for the negligence of one who uses or operates the vehicle with his or her permission. This section gives rise to a presumption that the vehicle is being operated with the owner’s consent. That strong presumption continues until there is substantial evidence to the contrary.
Although both father and son testified that Robin had no permission, there was also evidence that indicated that Robin might have occasionally driven the vehicle (albeit briefly). Moreover, the parties contradicted each other about where the keys to the van were at the time that Robin took them.
The uncontradicted testimony of a vehicle owner that the vehicle was operated without his or her permission, does not, by itself, overcome the presumption of permissive use. Additionally, if the evidence produced to show that no permission has been given has been contradicted or, because of improbability, interest of the witnesses or other weakness, may reasonably be disregarded by the jury, its weight lies with the jury.
Although the rule is not absolute or invariable, in most cases uncontradicted disavowals of permission by both the owner of the vehicle and the driver will constitute substantial evidence negating permissive use and entitle the owner to summary judgment. However, disavowals by both the owner and the driver, without more, should not automatically result in summary judgment for the owner.
Ultimately, whether summary judgment is warranted depends on the strength and plausibility of the disavowals of permission, and whether they leave room for doubts that are best left for the jury.
The Court found that the strength and plausibility of the disavowals of permission in this case certainly left room for doubts that were best left for the jury.