According to Houma Today, a 17-year-old boy from Cut Off was killed on October 22nd when the car he was riding in struck a utility pole. The boy, Edward Domingue, and his 15-year-old girlfriend were going to pick up pizza and movies when she lost control of the vehicle. Questions remain regarding why the girl was driving since she did not have a driver’s license. Further, the girl’s mother and owner of the vehicle, Gillian Reynolds, adamantly stated that she would not allow her daughter to drive. While the facts are still not clear, civil liability for the accident and Domingue’s death are also still up in the air.
Louisiana Revised Statute 32:52 states that no person shall operate a vehicle or allow another person to operate a vehicle owned or controlled by him if the driver is unlicensed. However, the simple fact that doing so is a statutory violation does not necessarily imply that the owner, or the unlicensed driver, was negligent. In Enlow v. Blaney, the Louisiana Third Circuit held that even though a 14-year-old was not licensed to drive, the fact that the vehicle’s owner allowed her to drive without a license was “immaterial and irrelevant” to the issue of negligence where her “conduct in driving without a license was not a cause-in-fact of the accident.” Following its rationale in Enlow, the Third Circuit ruled that even when the owner allows an unlicensed minor to drive her vehicle, she will not be liable for a resulting accident where evidence suggests that the minor was competent to drive and the fact the driver was unlicensed is not the cause-in-fact of the accident.
However, under general common law principles, if the owner knowingly allows a person who is incompetent to drive, such as by repeated instances of negligent or reckless conduct, the owner may be liable for negligence. This usually requires that the incompetent driver be “on a mission” for the owner, acting as the owner’s agent or employee, or the owner is negligent for entrusting his vehicle to the incompetent driver. In order to establish negligent entrustment, a plaintiff must show that the vehicle’s owner knew or should have known that the borrower is incompetent to drive. One case of particular interest is the 1993 case of Jones v. Western Preferred Casualty Co. In that case, the Louisiana First Circuit found that a 19-year-old vehicle owner did not negligently entrust his car to a 13-year-old where the 13-year-old had only driven a few times before, had been drinking, and the 19-year-old had never met the 13-year-old before that day.
In the 1953 appellate case Nelson v. Carriere, the Louisiana Third Circuit held that age or inexperience driving cannot “brand” someone incompetent to drive a vehicle or be presumptive evidence of negligence. This is not the case in all jurisdictions. For example, courts of several states including Illinois and Alabama automatically presume that a vehicle owner was negligent in entrusting her vehicle to an unlicensed driver. See, e.g., Chiniche v. Smith (Ala. 1979). In Louisiana, proof of inexperience, past negligence or reckless in driving, or failure to obey driving laws can provide evidence of incompetence but, as noted previously, cannot create a presumption of negligence or negligent entrustment.
Additionally, it is unlikely that Mr. Domingue’s conduct in allowing his unlicensed girlfriend to drive will reduce her or her mother’s civil liability. In Faulk v. Champagne, the Louisiana Third Circuit found that a passenger was not liable for permitting an unlicensed driver to operate a vehicle since the passenger had no legal duty to prevent the driver from driving and the passenger did not know or should have known that the driver was incompetent. It is not clear whether this was the case here. However, neither Mr. Domingue’s girlfriend nor her mother will automatically be negligent simply because she was unlicensed. Instead, a court will consider inexperience as one of many factors in deciding any civil liability.
If you or someone you know was involved in a vehicle accident with unclear liability, consult with an attorney today in order to preserve your legal rights.