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Negligent Entrustment

Under Washington law, the mere fact that a person owns a vehicle does not make him or her liable for the injuries and losses caused by a negligent driver of that vehicle. However, there is an independent cause of action to be made against an owner of a vehicle for Negligent Entrustment. Washington law holds that an owner of a vehicle may be guilty of negligent entrustment if the entrustment of the vehicle posed an unreasonable risk of reasonably foreseeable harm to the plaintiff, or to the class of persons to which the plaintiff belongs.

In the course of investigating a recent case involving a drunk driver operating a company van after hours, we learned through a simple public records search that this person had been convicted of Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUI) several years ago. His employer would have been able to conduct such a search when the driver was initially hired by the company. However, the evidence suggests the company conducted no background check or pre-employment screening of any kind prior to hiring him as a driver. In fact, he was hired in an informal interview over a couple of beers.

Whether the simple failure to conduct a pre-employment screening amounts to "unreasonable risk" is a question for a jury, sufficient for the plaintiff's damages to be imputed against the corporate owner of the vehicle. Of course, the owner would argue that the company van was being driven after hours, on the employee's own time, and the mere fact that he may have had a prior DUI doesn't make it unreasonable to entrust him with the vehicle. Fortunately, we were able to discover additional details:

1. In response to our request for production of documents, the employer provided what it asserted were complete copies of the driver's expense account receipts for his out-of-town travel.

2. The driver stated in his deposition that since his employer would reimburse him for meals but not for alcohol consumed while he was on the road, his common practice was to submit receipts to the company with the food portion circled or tabulated on the receipt, and the non-food items crossed out or deducted from the total shown.

3. The driver's receipts illustrate a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption while on the road and in possession of the company van. For example, on a trip to Bellingham, the driver submitted a receipt for a meal that cost $9.95, and a $2 tip. The check also illustrates that the driver ordered five pints of Michelob. Even though he wasn't seeking reimbursement of the alcohol expenses, the drinks are plainly stated on the restaurant receipt.

Any reasonable employer would conclude, from the "line-item" receipts showing actual alcohol purchases, that the driver was consuming excessive amounts of alcohol while away from town in circumstances where the company van provided him his only means of transportation to and from dinner and his place of lodging. An employer that had conducted due diligence in investigating the driver's driving record would have uncovered his prior DUI conviction. While this conviction standing alone might not have been sufficient grounds to deny the driver a job as a mobile deliveryman, the evidence of the prior conviction when considered in tandem with the evidence of his out-of-town drinking would certainly lead a jury to conclude that the employer was negligent in entrusting him with the keys to the company van.

All of this led to our being able to leverage a policy limits settlement against the owner of the vehicle.

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