The New Hampshire Supreme Court has affirmed the judgments of two lower courts in finding a plaintiff who was seriously injured and lost his wife to a drunk driver could not obtain damages from either:
- The police agency whose employee arrested the defendant the night before for drunk driving; or
- The tow truck company that released the defendant’s vehicle to him that morning, some two hours before the fatal crash.
According to court records in Weaver v. Stewart, the plaintiff and his wife were riding their motorcycles at around noon one day in June 2010 when they were struck by a vehicle that had driven the wrong way into oncoming traffic. The plaintiff was seriously injured. His wife died. It was later determined the driver of the wrong-way car was intoxicated, as evidenced by the fact he exhibited signs of impairment and failed a field sobriety test. Investigating officers found illegally obtained Xanax in his back seat. Toxicology reports indicated numerous drugs – including Xanax – were in his blood system at the time of the collision.
Evidence would later reveal that nearly 12 hours earlier, at around 11:30 p.m., the defendant police officer responded to a call that reported someone was driving a vehicle erratically. The officer located the vehicle and pulled over the driver. The officer noticed the driver displayed signs of intoxication, and the driver failed a field sobriety test. After arresting the driver for driving under the influence, the officer called a local towing company to come get the driver’s vehicle. He then took the driver to the police station for booking. The driver refused to undergo a breathalyzer test.
At around 1:30 a.m., the same officer drove the driver to a residence. At the time, the officer noted the man to be “somewhat impaired.”
Then, at around 7:30 a.m., the driver called the police department and spoke with the defendant officer about his vehicle, and he was told he could pick it up at around 9 a.m. At the time, the officer said, the driver “sounded better” than he had the night before in terms of impairment.
Sometime between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., the driver arrived at the towing yard, paid the storage charges, and retrieved his vehicle. The owner of the towing company testified the driver did not appear to be impaired at that time.
Then, at around 11:20 a.m., the driver left a voice message for the officer that was “incoherent.”
Forty minutes later, he drove into oncoming traffic and caused the drunk driving motorcycle accident.
The plaintiff sued the officer, the police station, and the towing company, alleging a number of negligence claims, including negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle. The police officer and his employer moved for summary judgment, arguing they were entitled to official immunity under common law, the claims didn’t stem from the defendants’ ownership, occupation, maintenance, or operation of the vehicle, and there was no evidence that any act or omission by the police proximately caused the accident.
The plaintiff countered this was not about the police failing to keep the defendant detained. Instead, this was about negligently entrusting an intoxicated defendant with his motor vehicle the next morning. For this, the plaintiff argued, the police agency committed negligent entrustment.
The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s argument, finding a lack of evidence that the defendants proximately caused the accident. With regard to the towing company, the trial court also concluded there was no liability for negligent entrustment because “no reasonable jury would believe” the driver was impaired when he picked up his vehicle that day.
On appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, that decision was affirmed, finding there was no evidence the defendants breached a duty of care to the plaintiff.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Weaver v. Stewart, Oct. 27, 2016, New Hampshire Supreme Court
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