Next time someone asks to borrow your car, think hard before saying Yes. I hate to be all lawyer on you here but people lending their car to someone have been successfully sued for damages or gone to prison for life. Rare? Yes. But scary nonetheless.
If someone asks to borrow your car, you need to be aware of the liability you are exposed to even when you are not driving or even in your car. Many states, including Michigan, have "Owner Liability" or vicarious liability laws which say that when there is an accident, the owner of the car is on the hook for damages regardless of who was driving, so long as the driver had the consent – express or implied – of the owner to drive the vehicle. Lend your car to the town drunk and he kills someone with it? That's on you. Your wacky cousin asks if he can run to the store for beer during the Christmas party and runs over some neighbor kids? Hope your insurance is up to date. A co-worker you just met? Do I need to say it?
Some states limit how much the absent owner can be held liable for and your insurance might well cover it, but it's still not fun to be sued for something someone else did.
Note that your consent is required for the liability to apply. So, if your car is stolen and the thief runs someone over, then you shouldn't be held liable. But if someone in your family "borrows" your car without asking? Here's where those good old legislators come in. In Michigan, if a direct family member is behind the wheel of your car, the law presumes they had your consent to drive the vehicle and you will be on the hook unless you can prove that they did not have your consent. That argument will lend to some fun family reunions. And from what I have seen, several other states like the idea of pinning the sins of your family on you, the car owner.
As a lawyer, I have to give you the full spectrum of legal possibilities, no matter how remote. So let me tell you about Ryan Holle. He is serving a life sentence without a chance of parole because he lent his car to his friends. Granted, those friends went and robbed someone after using that car to drive themselves to the scene of the crime. And there, they killed someone. At the moment of the murder, Holle was at home, asleep. Based on those facts – and the fact that Florida is one of the states that still has a felony murder rule on its books – Holle was sent to prison for life. I am not excusing his actions and there is obviously a lot more to the story but the facts I recited above are not disputed.
So, what would happen if a friend borrowed your car and then went and did something horribly stupid with it? Just think about that when someone asks to borrow your car. Have teenage or college age children? Maybe sit them down and tell them about Ryan Holle. I know that when I was growing up, my neighborhood group of friends included one or two who might have been capable of doing something remarkably idiotic with someone else's car. The few who foolishly asked if they could borrow my car were simply told No. No one drove my car but me.
I'm not saying you should never lend your car to someone. Just think it through carefully and understand the possible ramifications. Now, get off my lawn.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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