Car Crashes And Vicarious Liability

Although New York has one of the lowest percentages of uninsured motorists in the country, it also has one of the lowest auto insurance minimum requirements in the country. So, many tortfeasors (negligent drivers) are dangerously uninsured, and may not have enough coverage to fully compensate injured plaintiffs, especially in serious or catastrophic injury collisions.

These plaintiffs might be able to file claims against the individuals, as opposed to their insurance companies, for the balance, but an applicable third party liability theory is a better approach.

What are some common vicarious liability theories in New York?


Respondeat Superior

The respondeat superior theory normally applies if the tortfeasor was a delivery driver, long-haul trucker, taxi driver, Uber driver, or other operator who transported goods and/or people for a fare.

For the “let the master answer” theory to apply, the tortfeasor must be an employee. In tax law, this word normally means a person who works regular hours, receives a regular wage, and receives a W-2. But in tort law, an employee is anyone that the employer controls. THat could be a regular employee, independent contractor, unpaid intern, church volunteer, or even an employee’s spouse.

That’s because most civil judges define “employ” as suffer or permit to work, in accordance with Department of Labor standards.

The tortfeasor must also have been acting in the scope of employment at the time of the car wreck. Judges define this phrase in broad and plaintiff-friendly terms as well. In workers’ compensation cases, courts have consistently held that even activities like company softball games are within the scope of employment. In the driving context, any act that benefits the employer in any way, such as operating a vehicle that bears the company logo, may meet the scope of employment prong.


Dram Shop

In alcohol-related vehicle collision cases, the entity that sold liquor to the tortfeasor is often liable for damages, under Section 11-101 of the General Obligations Law. Commercial providers are liable for damages if their impaired patrons cause car crashes following an illegal sale, which is defined as selling alcohol to:

  • A Minor: Liability usually attaches as a matter of law, because it may not be a defense that the tortfeasor looked older or presented a false identification.
  • An Obviously Intoxicated Person: Some typical signs of intoxication include bloodshot eyes, unsteady balance, and slurred speech.

The dram shop law normally applies to places where alcohol is consumed on site, like bars and restaurants. However, it may also apply to places that sell packaged alcohol, because it is arguably foreseeable that a person will open a beer on the way home.


Negligent Entrustment

Private vehicle owners are legally responsible for damages if they loan their property to drivers whom they know to be incompetent.

Unlicensed drivers are usually incompetent as a matter of law. Circumstantial evidence is admissible as well, because for example, some drivers can operate their vehicles safely during the day but should not drive at night and others have poor driving records. In both these instances, victim/plaintiffs must establish that the owner knew about the driver’s incompetence.

Special rules may apply in public negligent entrustment cases involving rented vehicles.