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Vicarious Liability and Negligent Entrustment

In most states, individuals may be liable for accidents caused by other persons who are driving their vehicle, with their direct or implied permission. In many states, both the owner and the driver of a vehicle may be named in a lawsuit under a theory of “vicarious liability.” Even in the absence of “owner’s liability” statutes, the common law theory of “negligent entrustment” of their vehicle to another person may result in liability exposure.

Likewise, under general negligence theories of vicarious liability and “respondeat superior” (“let the master answer”), employers may be liable (in addition to their employees) for accidents caused by their employees while operating company vehicles. Such vicarious liability is generally limited to automobile accidents caused during the course of employment and does not apply if the employee was using the vehicle beyond the scope of his or her authority.

In a roundabout way, the law permits two other circumstances for vicarious or remote liability. One involves an accident caused by a defective vehicle, in which a “product liability” lawsuit against the manufacturer may result in payment of damages. In the other, several state laws permit suits against state highway officers and departments in connection with the negligent construction or repair of highways, streets, bridges, and overpasses, that may have proximately caused an accident.

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