Police Chases and Car Thief and Car Owner Liability

There were two large verdicts against Avis National and its franchise in Atlanta in the last two years and the lawyers on both sides of the case I consider to be friends and fine attorneys at the same time. The case arose out of a tragic accident where an Avis franchise employee stole a car from the Avis lot and 5 hours later was being chased by the police when he lost control and hit two young ladies sitting on a wall, amputating the leg of one and causing almost $1,000,000 in medical bills to the other. The cases were tried separately and the leg case returned a verdict of over $45 million, partially against Avis National, even though there is a long standing legal precedent that says that the franchisor is not liable for the acts of the franchisee. The second case was tried to a verdict of $7 million.

The Court of Appeals on a Halloween decision threw out the second verdict entirely and the interesting part of the ruling seems to be the Court’s focus on time and separation of acts. While considering the issue of whether Avis was directly liable to the Plaintiff’s for failing to properly foresee that an employee would steal a car and get in a police chase that could result in harm to innocent pedestrians, the court examined how closely connected the successful theft of the car and the injury event were.

The Court ultimately ruled that “Perry’s intervening criminal conduct(running from the police in the stolen car 5 hours later) was the proximate cause of Johnson’s injuries. So Avis was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. ”

When considering the intervening cause, they wrote “a venerable line of authority hold[s] that the alleged negligence of the owner[ in creating conditions that allowed a vehicle to be stolen] is not the legal cause of personal injuries sustained due to the negligent operation of a stolen vehicle
by a thief”; defendant’s act of leaving his truck parked, unattended, with the keys in
the ignition, next to a county work farm was not the legal cause of any injuries
plaintiffs sustained in the subsequent collision with the stolen truck); J. C. Lewis
Motor Co. v. Giles, 194 Ga. App. 472, 472 (391 SE2d 19) (1990) (car thief’s acts, not
car dealership’s negligence that resulted in the theft of a vehicle later involved in a
collision with plaintiff, were the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries, even though
dealership’s cars had been stolen before); Price v. Big Creek of Ga., 191 Ga. App.
534 (382 SE2d 356) (1989) (car thief’s acts, not defendant’s acts of alleged
negligence in leaving keys in unattended vehicle which allowed vehicle to be stolen,
were the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries); Dunham v. Wade, 172 Ga. App. 391,
393 (2) (323 SE2d 223) (1984) (“The fact that the keys were left in the unguarded
automobile would not authorize a recovery against the owner for the injuries which
were the result of its subsequent negligent operation by a thief. The persons
immediately responsible will be held to full liability; but persons only so remotely
connected with the injury can not be held.”) (punctuation and citations omitted).
Johnson has not mustered evidence sufficient to distinguish this “venerable line
of authority.” Long, 219 Ga. App. at 855 (1).”

I had a discussion with a client who want to sue a hospital where a person admitted for insanity escaped and stole the ambulance with the keys in it and ultimately collided with our client. That case had two reasons why the claim against the hospital would not fly; 1) the keys are in the ambulance to save time and lives when the EMTs have to respond to an emergency quickly, it’s not negligence, 2) these decisions make it pretty clear that maybe if the vehicle is pulling out of the lot and causes the crash, there is no break in the chain of causation, but the further you get away in distance and time from the event, the less one is related to the other, from proximate cause perspective.

The end of the appeals in the case are ahead as it next visits the Supreme Court, but the principal will likely hold; you are not legally responsible for every single thing that happens after you commit a wrong; there must be a pretty tight relationship.