Negligent Entrustment Claims Against Parents

Focus on parent liability for child's accidentnegligent entrustment

The tort of negligent entrustment is essentially the idea that a person or company put someone in a position to cause harm that never should have been in that position in the first place. In order to establish liability under this doctrine, plaintiff must prove: (1) the incompetence of the tortfeasor and, (2) the master or owner had knowledge of the incompetence.

In the motor vehicle accident context, it is a claim against the owner of the vehicle who allows someone to use their vehicle who is they know is not competent to drive the vehicle safety.

Here are some examples in the auto tort context:

  • Entrusting a car to someone who is intoxicated
  • Entrusting a car to an unlicensed driver
  • Renting a car to an incompetent driver

In some jurisdictions, like California, the owner of a motor vehicle is liable by statute for the harm caused by anyone operating her vehicle with permission. California parents are also liable for the auto accident torts of their minor children.  This is not the law in Maryland. 

Maryland Law

In Rounds v. Phillips, 166 Md. 151 160-61 (1934) the Maryland Court of Appeals first recognized this doctrine. In 1997, the Maryland high court in Broadwater v. Dorsey, 344 Md. 548 (1997) utilized the definition of negligent entrustment in the Restatement (Second) of Torts:

One who supplies directly or through a third person a chattel for use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm . . . .

Id. at 554; Second Restatement of Torts § 390 (1965). The Maryland Court of Special Appeals later flushed it out further with respect to the elements required to establish negligent entrustment:

  1. The making available to another a chattel which the supplier
  2. knows or should have known the user is likely to use in a manner involving risk of physical harm to others
  3. the supplier should expect to be endangered by its use.

Wright v. Neale, 79 Md. App. 20 (1989).

Typically, negligent entrustment accident claims get to a jury because the question is what a reasonable person would do. There is no tidy formula to determine what a reasonable person would do. In Morris v. Weddington, 74 Md. App. 650 (1988), the Maryland Court of Special Appeals underscored the relsaid in regard to a negligent entrustment claim:

There is no litmus test to determine whether a supplier had the requisite knowledge of an entrustee's propensity to use the entrusted chattel in an improper or dangerous manner. For purposes of our review of the summary judgment entered against appellant, however, we note that the Court of Appeals has adopted a very restrictive rule concerning taking cases from the jury in negligence actions. The test of legal sufficiency "is whether the evidence served to prove a fact or permits an inference of fact that could enable an ordinarily intelligent mind to draw a rational conclusion therefrom in support of the right of the plaintiff to recover. (Citations omitted).

Id. at 656.

Parents Are Not on the Hook for Their Children Absent Compelling Circumstances

The idea of negligent supervision of truck drivers is usually a very different animal from negligent supervision of children. Maryland courts certainly do not intend to create liability for parents every time a child has an accident in their parents' car. In spite of what many people assume Maryland law to be, parents are not vicariously liable for the torts of their children based solely on their parenthood. But, on the other hand, parents have to be reasonable in granting their children access to the dangerous instrumentality that is the automobile.

Before You Get Too Deep, Figure Out If You Really Care

Keep in mind that in many cases, the liability of the owner is superfluous. Usually, the owner has insurance on the vehicle that is going to govern the coverage. So ask yourself if you really need it. Do you need discovery on a trucking company and this claim is the only path to finding out what the company may have done?  Certainly, the great advantage of these claims is that evidence of specific prior acts of negligence of the at-fault driver and even evidence of reputation might be admissible.  This might be a game changer if there as a serious liability dispute as to who was at fault. 

There are also coverage issues. Does the vehicle's owner have other coverage that would apply that you need the ability to tap into to satisfy you claim on its best day? 

These are good reasons to chase this issue. But if it really does not matter, and it does not if the coverage is there and there is not liability dispute,  than just move on to the issue that really matter.

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