Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is A Towing Company Liable For Death After Releasing Vehicle To Its Drunk Owner?

Suprisingly the answer is "no," according to a recent Ohio case.


A group of four young adults head to a college town for Halloween festivities. Accompanying the group was a night of marijuana and drinking. Early in the morning, one of the group noticed that there car had been towed. They located the car in the tow yard, and after paying the bill the tow company employee returned the keys to the driver, who was noticably intoxicated.

The group headed for home. You can figure out how this story ends. The driver wrecks the car and one of the passengers is killed. The boy's parents sued the towing company, claiming that the employee should not have relinquished the keys to the driver since he was intoxicated. What's more, it was revealed in the lawsuit that the towing company:

had on previous occasions "stalled" individuals who they believed were intoxicated from obtaining their vehicle from impound. On other occasions, they allowed allegedly intoxicated persons to obtain their vehicle but subsequently contacted law enforcement to report the vehicle's make, model, license plate, and direction of travel.

The legal issue in the case was: did the towing company owe a duty to "third persons" like the deceased passenger for harm resulting from the negligent conduct of another (in this case the impaired driver)? In other words, did the towing company give "substantial assistance or encouragement" to the driver by returning his keys?

The Court concluded that the towing company did not facilitate the driver's insobriety or drug abuse. Nor did it sell or provide him with the alcohol or marijuana he voluntarily consumed. Finally, the towing company took no part in the passenger's decision to take the risk of riding in a car with an impaired driver.

Quite simply, the Court was unwilling to impose a legal duty on the towing company when it had nothing to do with the group's intoxication and decision to ride in the car when they knew the driver was impaired. I wonder if the court's decision would have been different if the facts of this case were different. What if the towing company tossed the keys to an known, intoxicated driver who then crashed into another vehicle and injured an innocent family that was heading to church or school?
After all, the towing company had withheld keys from intoxicated owners in the past, which seems to me to be good common sense and sound policy...


There are a couple take away lessons here. First, I doubt that the driver had high levels of liability insurance to cover any injuries caused by his drunk driving. Second, if a towing company is not legally liable, despite releasing the car to an intoxicated patron, it may leave innocent motorists injured by the driver with no legal recovery. Under these circumstances, there's only one surefire way that innocent drivers can protect themselves: purchase high levels of Uninsured/Underinsured motorists' coverage--at least $500,000 or even a million. This coverage is cheap and allows you to pursue a claim against your own insurance company in the event you are on the receiving end of a series of bad decisions that cause you harm.

No comments: