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Massachusetts Appeals Court Holds Seller of a Motorcycle Liable for Negligently Selling to an Unfit Driver — O’Leary v. Fox

bikeforsaleHave you been injured in a Cape Cod vehicle accident? Our motor vehicle accident attorneys are dedicated to effectively representing those whom the negligent acts of others have injured. The physical, psychological, and financial damages from an auto accident can have a devastating impact. Worrying about financial damages from an accident can be stressful. It is important to have an attorney that will maximize your compensation so that you can focus on recovery.

Even if another driver seems to be at fault, they may not have the assets, money, or income to adequately compensate your loss. However, there may be other negligent parties, not at the scene of the accident scene, that may also be a source of compensation.

For example, an auto repair company may be liable for negligently causing a vehicle to be unsafe. An employer may be vicariously liable for the negligent driving of an employee within the scope of employment. A motor vehicle manufacturer may be liable for the negligent design of a vehicle. Even someone knowingly allowing an unfit driver operate a vehicle may be liable under a theory of negligent entrustment.

Examining the theory of negligent entrustment, the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently ruled on whether selling a motorcycle to a knowingly unfit driver could create liability. The plaintiff in O’leary v. Fox, had sustained injuries by an insolvent motorcycle driver who did not have insurance and did not own the motorcycle. The plaintiff brought a negligent entrustment claim against the company that sold the motorcycle; however, the trial court dismissed the case concluding that the plaintiff would never be able to prove the company owned and controlled the motorcycle.

To bring a valid claim under a theory of negligent entrustment, the plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant entrusted the vehicle to a knowingly incompetent or unfit driver whose incompetence or unfitness caused the plaintiff’s injuries; (2) that the person who owned and controlled the vehicle gave specific permission to the operator of the vehicle; and that (3) the defendant had actual knowledge of the incompetence or unfitness of the vehicle operator.

In the case, the plaintiff brought a negligent entrustment claim against Red Streak, Fox, and Dobay (RFD) for negligently selling a motorcycle to a Mr. Foster. With the motorcycle, Foster caused an accident that injured the plaintiff. Prior to all this, RFD had sold another motorcycle to a Ms. Rice, and she let Foster, the negligent driver, drive the motorcycle on a regular basis. Foster tried to purchase a second motorcycle from RFD using the first motorcycle and Rice’s credit line. RFD gave the second motorcycle to Foster and switched the license plate from the first motorcycle to the second motorcycle. The second motorcycle was the one involved in the accident. Rice claims that she asked Foster to return the motorcycle, and that she never authorized the purchase. However, RFD claimed that Ms. Rice owned the motorcycle and brought a motion to dismiss claiming they could not be held under a theory of negligent entrustment since they did not own the motorcycle, which, as stated above, the trial judge granted.

Since the Appeals Court was ruling on a motion to dismiss, the question before the court was whether the plaintiff could prove to a jury that RFD owned and controlled the motorcycle. The court held that the plaintiff could prove that the motorcycle was owned by RFD and overturned the dismissal in favor of the defendants given the following evidence:

  • Since the motorcycle was never registered in Rice’s name, RFD had no prima facie evidence that they did not own the motorcycle;
  • RFD never contacted Rice regarding the purchase of the motorcycle or the use of her credit line;
  • RFD gave Foster the second motorcycle, switched the plates, and and handed the keys to Foster;
  • There was not certificate of origin for the motorcycle;
  • And finally, RFD testified that they would never sell a motorcycle without proof of insurance, and the second motorcycle was never insured.

The O’leary v. Fox opinion extends liability of those who sell vehicles by ruling in a unique set of circumstances that a seller negligently entrusted a vehicle to a known unfit driver. It should be noted that, in order to survive a negligent entrustment claim, a plaintiff must also show that the seller knew the driver was unfit. The opinion cited ample evidence that RFD knew Foster was an unfit driver and, seller Dobay of RFD, was friends with the negligent motorcycle driver.

Negligent entrustment is one theory that the court will allow an injured party seek compensation from a negligent party not at the scene of the accident. Being injured in a car accident can cause enormous emotional, physical, and financial pain. Having to deal with the stress of healing, medical bills, and lost wages can be overwhelming, and it is critical to consult an attorney who knows how to get you the compensation you deserve.

Local attorney, John C. Manoog III, has extensive experience handling motor vehicle accident claims. For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or reach us by email. There is always someone available to talk to you about your case.

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