New York imposes “vicarious liability” on the owners of motor vehicles. This means that if you are injured in a car accident, you can sue the owner of the other vehicle, even if he or she was not directly involved. Liability still exists if the owner gave “express or implied” permission to the person driving the vehicle at the time of the accident.
But there is an important exception to this rule. In 2005, President Bush signed into law a comprehensive transportation bill that included a provision known as the Graves Amendment. This amendment provides that a motor vehicle owner who “rents or leases the vehicle to a person” is exempt from any state-level vicarious liability rule, provided the owner is “is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles.” The Graves Amendment does not exempt an owner from his or her own negligence, or any criminal wrongdoing, only liability for an accident caused by someone who rents or leases the vehicle in question.
The Graves Amendment has proven controversial in New York, one of the few states to impose unlimited vicarious liability on car owners. In 2006, a Queens Supreme Court judge actually held that the Graves Amendment was an unconstitutional intrusion by Congress into the state’s authority to regulate tort liability. The Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed this decision in 2008, holding, “Congress may choose to preempt state liability schemes in order to effectuate regulation of economic activities which affect interstate commerce.”
Court Rejects Victim's Lawsuit Against Owner, Renter of Tractor Trailer
Here is a recent illustration of how the Graves Amendment affects the rights of car accident victims. In this case, a woman was a passenger in a car when it was struck by a tractor-trailer. The woman suffered serious injuries in the accident and subsequently sued the driver of the tractor-trailer, the owner of the tractor chassis, and the owner of the attached cargo container.
The tractor chassis owner moved to dismiss under the Graves Amendment, arguing it could not be held vicariously liable since it merely rented the chassis to the owner of the cargo container. Nassau County Supreme Court agreed and dismissed the chassis owner. On appeal, the Second Department affirmed.
The appeals court said there was no question the chassis owner was in the business of renting or leasing motor vehicles. Nor did the victim allege any negligence on the part of the chassis owner. Therefore there was no question the Graves Amendment applied here.
Additionally, the Second Department agreed with the Supreme Court's decision to dismiss the cargo container owner as a defendant. Vicarious liability only applies to the owner of a motor vehicle, which in this case refers to the chassis, not the cargo container. And since the cargo container owner was “not a statutory owner of the chassis,” it could not be held responsible for the victim's injuries.
Who is Responsible for Your Accident?If you have been seriously injured in a car accident, there may be multiple parties who can be held legally responsible. That is why it is important you work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney. Contact the offices of Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, if you would like to speak with someone right away.