Who’s At Fault if your car is stolen then involved in a wreck? The Thief, Victim, or Third Party Owner?

the_police_arrest_lego-1024x683In the world of litigation, there are often cases that raise questions about who should be held responsible for damages caused by certain events. Take the recent case of Christopher Blanchard, who claimed damages after his police car was hit by a stolen car. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, GoAuto Insurance Company and its insured, Demetrius J. Hicks, dismissing Blanchard’s claim for damages. The court ruled that Hicks, the vehicle’s owner, was not liable for the damages caused by an unknown thief who stole his truck and crashed it into Blanchard’s police car. To better understand how this came about, let us examine the facts and legal arguments of the case and explore the court’s reasoning for upholding the verdict.

The undisputed facts are as follows: Demetrius J. Hicks, a carpenter and subcontractor, parked his truck in front of a house he was inspecting, leaving the keys in the ignition and the engine running. Within minutes, an unknown thief stole the truck and drove off. Hicks tried to stop the thief but was unsuccessful. Eventually, the thief abandoned the truck behind Blanchard’s patrol car and fled on foot. The stolen truck collided with the police car, causing damage.

Blanchard filed a lawsuit against Hicks and GoAuto, the insurance company, seeking compensation for the accident. Hicks and GoAuto denied liability, claiming that Hicks’ truck had been stolen and the thief was responsible for the accident. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, dismissing Blanchard’s claims with prejudice.

Blanchard argued that Hicks violated Louisiana Revised Statute 32:145 by leaving his vehicle unattended with the keys in the ignition, which Blanchard argued constituted negligence per se (where a statute clearly defines the required standard of conduct). Louisiana Revised Statute 32:145 prohibits leaving a motor vehicle unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key, and setting the brake.

Relying on the decision made in a previous case Rancine v. Moon’s Towing, the court held that the mere act of leaving keys in a vehicle does not make the owner liable for injuries caused by someone using the vehicle without authorization. Citing several prior cases establishing this principle, the court emphasized that a violation of the lock statute (La.R.S. 32:145) does not extend to liability for damages caused by an unknown thief who steals the vehicle and injures a third party.

The court found that Hicks had not breached his duty of care as a vehicle owner. While it is true that he left his truck unattended with the keys in the ignition, he took reasonable measures in the August heat by leaving the air conditioning running and the windows up. The court also noted that Hicks immediately pursued the thief upon discovering the theft and attempted to recover his stolen truck.

In addition, the court noted that Blanchard failed to present evidence contradicting Hicks’ claim that the vehicle had been stolen. The burden of proof was on Blanchard to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Still, he did not submit any documents or affidavits to dispute the facts presented by Hicks.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of GoAuto Insurance Company and Demetrius J. Hicks. The court emphasized that a violation of Louisiana Revised Statute 32:145 does not impose liability on a vehicle owner if the vehicle is stolen and subsequently involved in an accident by the thief. This case serves as a reminder that, under the law, vehicle owners cannot be held liable for damages caused by the reckless actions of unauthorized thieves.


Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Oprah Jerome

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