Hough v. McKiernan – Vehicle Insurer Not Liable Following Physical Attack

There are numerous situations in which a vehicle owner – and by proxy, the owner’s insurer – can be held vicariously liable for injuries or fatalities occurring in the course of consensual use or operation of a vehicle.
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North Carolina’s interpretation of the vicarious liability statute is a bit stricter than in some other jurisdictions, requiring per North Carolina General Statutes 20-71.1 proof the driver was acting in agency of the owner.

Commonly, the theory of vicarious liability is applied to situations in which the driver was operating a commercial vehicle owned by an employer. There may be some instances in which private vehicle owners too could be held liable, but it will depend heavily on the circumstances.

In the recent case of Hough v. McKiernan, plaintiff sustained serious injuries by a man who first taunted him from a vehicle while following alongside him walking home from a work shift. The aggressor then got out of the vehicle and physically attacked the plaintiff, causing him to suffer serious head injuries. Surgeons had to remove a portion of his skull in order to relieve pressure in his swelling brain, and his road to recovery has been extensive.

Plaintiff was successful in a claim last year before the Rhode Island Supreme Court in securing a $925,000 judgment against his attacker, who alleged the amount excessive and punitive. The state supreme court disagreed with that assertion, and upheld judgment.

But then there was a question regarding whether the owner of that vehicle too might be held vicariously liable. The vehicle was being driven by the attacker with permission from the owner.

Plaintiff alleged the owner of the vehicle (attacker’s grandmother, now deceased, and substituted in the action by her insurance company), should be held vicariously liable for damages he incurred as a result of its use.

But our Greensboro injury attorneys note primarily hurdle in such argument is that injuries were not sustained in a motor vehicle accident. This was an intentional act carried out by a permissive driver. However, the actual attack did not occur inside the vehicle, but rather a distance from it.

The court noted the term “accident” has been broadly interpreted in the past with regard to compensable injuries per the vicarious liability statute. In fact, it has been successfully applied in cases where permissive drivers intentionally struck other individuals with the vehicle. Here, even intentional injuries may fall under the policy provisions of an “accident,” but they must in some way involve the vehicle.

In this case, the attack occurred an estimated three vehicle lengths from the car at issue. Thus, the court found plaintiff could not adequately link causation of his injuries with permissive use of the vehicle.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hough v. McKiernan, Jan. 16, 2015, Rhode Island Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Chain Reaction Crashes Cause Injuries and Raise Legal Questions for North Carolina Drivers, Jan. 18, 2015, Greensboro Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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