Monday, December 29, 2008

Graves Amendment Held to Apply Despite Rental Car Company's Alleged Failure to Check Renter's Driving Record

Sigaran v. ELRAC, Inc.

(Sup. Ct., Bronx Co., decided 12/23/2008)

Since August 10, 2005, the "Graves Amendment"has provided vehicle lessors and renters with a statutory basis for dismissing vicarious liability claims in motor vehicle accident lawsuits.  In pertinent part, the Graves Amendment provides:
§ 30106. Rented or leased motor vehicle safety responsibility(a) In general. An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if: (1) the owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and(2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).
ELRAC rented a car to Fernandez, who was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which the infant plaintiff allegedly was injured.  In an effort to avoid the claim-preclusive impact of the Graves Amendment, the plaintiffs in this case alleged in their complaint that ELRAC (Enterprise Rent-A-Car) negligently entrusted the rental vehicle to Fernandez by failing to check his driving history.  ELRAC answered and then moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint based on the Graves Amendment.

In granting ELRAC's motion, Bronx County Supreme Court Justice Dominic Massaro held:
The Court finds that the terms of the Graves Amendment validly apply here because the statute regulates and protects things in interstate commerce and because it regulates activity that substantially affected interstate commerce. Congress has legitimate authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate liability imposed upon a rental car company and the Graves Amendment constitutionally preempted state laws that imposed vicarious liability on rental car companies (see, Garcia v. Vanguard Car Rental USA, Inc., 540 F.3d 1242 (11th Cir. 2008); Flagler v. Budget Rent a Car Systems, Inc., 538 F. Supp. 2d 557 [ED NY 2008]).[FN3] [FN4][FN5]

Clearly, the Graves Amendment voids Vehicle & Traffic Law §388 to the extent that the Transportation Equity Act applies (see, Hall v. ELRAC, Inc., 52 AD3d 262 [1st Dept. 2008]); Hernandez v. Sanchez, 40 AD3d 446 [1st Dept. 2007]; Graham v. Dunkley, 50 AD3d 55 [2nd Dept. 2008]; Jones v. Bill, 34 AD3d 741 [2nd Dept. 2006], rev'd, 10 NY3d 550 [2008] [reversed on effective date of the amendment]; Williams v. White, 2007 Slip Op 02227 [3rd Dept. 2007]; Castillo v. Bradley, 17 Misc 3d 1107(A) [Sup. Ct. Kings 2008]; Infante v. U-Haul Co. of Fla., 11 Misc 3d 529 [Sup. Ct. Queens 2006]). 

Basing their claim upon the Graves Amendment, Defendants say the complaint against the corporation fails to state a cause of action because the allegations, if true, are barred by the statute. In this regard, Defendants focus their attack upon Plaintiffs' allegation that ELRAC, Inc. was negligent because the corporation knew (or should have known) Fernandez's history of operating vehicles in an unsafe, careless, and reckless manner (see, Complaint ¶¶10 to 12). 

*  *  *  *  *

Construing liberally, as it must, Plaintiffs urge that the Court find that a claim is stated against the corporation because the complaint alleges a cause of action under an exception to the Graves Amendment, i.e., actual negligence (49 U.S.C. § 30106[a][2]). In this regard, by the statute's plain reading, while the Graves Amendment absolves rental car companies of vicarious liability, it does not absolve rental car companies for their own negligence (see generally, Novovic v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 2008 US Dist. Lexis 94176 [ED NY 2008]) (see also, American Association for Justice, AAJ Annual Convention Reference Materials, 2 Ann 2007 AAJ-CLE 1873 [2007]).

To decide whether ELRAC falls under the "own negligence" exception, the Court must decide whether the corporation was under an obligation to check Fernandez's driving record and whether failure to carry out such duty places this case under the exemption provided by 49 USC §30106(a)(2) ("no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner"). 

*  *  *  *  *

Plaintiffs' allegations are limited to the following: (1) the corporate defendant had a duty to ensure that any vehicle rented by it would be operated in a safe manner; (2) the corporate defendant has a duty to determine whether any drivers to whom it rented vehicles did not have a history of operating vehicles in a careless way, and (3) ELRAC was negligent in renting to Fernandez (Complaint ¶¶ 9 to 11). Beyond that, no specifications were made concerning the nature of Fernandez's driving record that should have alerted ELRAC not to rent to him.

In their answering papers, Plaintiffs generally argue that ELRAC was, in essence, guilty of "negligent entrustment," but cite no basis or any specifics for claiming that ELRAC was under a duty to check Fernandez's driving record. 


At common law, owners could be held liable if they knowingly entrusted their car to an incompetent driver. "One who supplies a chattel for the 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 himself and others may be liable for negligent entrustment" (see, Pacho v. Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co., 572 F.Supp.2d 341 [SD NY 2008]) The Pacho Court found "negligent entrustment" applied to the rental company's failure in that case to properly process the co-defendant's driver's license. However, in this case, no allegations exist that the corporate defendant failed to check Fernandez's license.[FN6] Therefore, the Court must conclude that Plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action that the corporate defendant knew, or should have known, that Fernandez was unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless. Further, Plaintiffs failed to cite any legal authority that ELRAc was under an obligation to check Fernandez's driver's record beyond verifying that he had a valid driver's license (see generally, Vedder v. Cox, 18 Misc 3d 1142 [A] (Sup. Ct. Nassau 2008]).

Based upon the foregoing, the Court finds that Plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action against the corporate Defendant. Likewise, the Court determines that Plaintiffs' did not allege a claim independent of Vehicle & Traffic Law §388.[FN7]
Beyond checking to make sure that a renter has a valid driver's license,a rental car company is not obligated to check the renter's driving history or record, according to this court, in order to qualify for the vicarious liability claim-preclusive protection of the Graves Amendment.

To read most posts about New York cases involving the Graves Amendment, click here.   

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