Trust Fall: Virginia's Negligent Entrustment Doctrine

Author: Trent S. Kerns, Richmond, VA Personal Injury Attorney

Did you know that you can be held liable for an accident when you weren’t even there? Virginia’s negligent entrustment doctrine supports liability against third parties who negligently empower or facilitate collisions whether or not that person ever got behind the wheel of a car.

The vast majority of personal injury disputes in Virginia are between the person who caused the injury and the person who was harmed. In rare instances, a third party, identified as negligent by the injured person, may be brought into the claim under Virginia law. [1] Under the doctrine of negligent entrustment, knowingly providing someone with a dangerous article can make you responsible for whatever actions that person undertakes with that article. For example, if you give your car to an intoxicated driver or allow them to drive, you may be held liable for any injuries they cause in the ensuing collision.

While this law may surprise you, it makes sense from a public policy perspective. Virginia’s personal injury law is designed to protect people and provide compensation when someone is injured through no fault of their own. If more than one person acts negligently, both will be held responsible under the law. The drunk driver acted negligently by causing the motor vehicle collision and the car owner acted negligently by allowing the intoxicated driver to get behind the wheel.

In most cases you do not have to worry about loaning your car to a friend or relative who you know is responsible. The doctrine of negligent entrustment requires that the party bringing the claim provide proof that the person loaning the car knew or should have known that the person they were loaning it to was unfit to drive or constituted a danger behind the wheel. For example, one of the very earliest cases to use negligent entrustment found a father liable for his son’s accident because he allowed his son to drive the car despite knowing he had a propensity for joyriding.[2] The father had a reason to believe that his son would drive recklessly before he gave him the car and was found to be responsible when his son’s reckelessness caused the collision.

 Returning to our earlier example involving an intoxicated motorist, the knowledge requirement under the negligent entrustment doctrine can be somewhat difficult to decipher. In Virginia we have a legal limit for blood alcohol content (.08) that defines “drunk driving.” In a casual home setting, it is nearly impossible to make that scientific determination. How can you ‘know’ that the person is legally intoxicated and therefore unfit to drive?

Under Virginia law, actual knowledge is not required. While you may not ‘know’ that the person’s blood alcohol content is above a .08, if you watch them consume several alcohol beverages in a relatively short period of time, hear them slur their speech, act unsteady on their feet or otherwise act in an intoxicated manner, you ‘should have known’ that the person was unfit to get behind the wheel of a car. Virginia’s negligent entrustment doctrine will still apply.

The only safe way to handle this situation is to stay far away from the boundary. Just as you should never flirt with the line of drinking and driving yourself, you should not allow anyone whose level of inebriation is even slightly concerning to drive your car. While this article focuses on the potential legal consequences of loaning out your vehicle, you also have to be aware of moral choices. As responsible citizens we should all do everything in our power to prevent collisions, whether we can be held liable for them or not. Often intoxicated people who  ask for your keys are demanding and belligerent. The key is to remain calm, secure help, and always remember that an intoxicated person behind the wheel of your car is an unacceptable outcome, even if you have to take extreme action to prevent it.[3]

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