After a young girl was injured while riding as a passenger in a Jeep driven by her 14-year-old friend, the young girl’s parents filed a personal injury lawsuit alleging that the girl’s mother had negligently entrusted her underage daughter with the vehicle. The trial court granted summary judgment against the passenger, and she appealed.
The young passenger filed suit against the 14-year-old driver’s mother and the company she owned, raising a claim of negligent entrustment and seeking to recover for the passenger’s medical expenses, pain and suffering, punitive damages, and attorney fees.
During discovery, the 14-year-old driver said that she’d been driving four-wheelers for years and that she started to learn how to drive licensed vehicles more than a year before the accident. As her driving improved, her mother let her move from driving vehicles on the family’s property to driving across the street. The 14-year-old typically drove the Jeep, which was a stick shift, and before the accident she drove a few times a week.
The driver’s mother testified that she, not her company, owned the Jeep. She kept the keys to each of the family’s vehicles in the Jeep. However, both the driver and her mother testified that the 14-year-old was required to ask her mother for permission before driving the Jeep. The driver’s mother testified that she wouldn’t let girl drive in the mornings because trucks traveled on the road near their house at that time. The mother wasn’t aware of the girl ever taking a vehicle without first asking permission. The girl acknowledged that she didn’t ask her mother for permission to drive the Jeep on the morning of the accident, in part because she wasn’t sure her mom would agree.
As another rule for the 14-year-old’s driving, her mother identified “turnaround spots” which she wasn’t allowed to travel beyond. However, she sometimes went farther than her mom permitted. When she confessed to doing so, her mother restricted her from driving for a period of time. Eventually, although the 14-year-old didn’t stop driving farther than allowed, she stopped answering truthfully when her mother asked if she’d been driving farther. The 14-year-old’s mother couldn’t recall the location of her turnaround spot at the time of the accident, so she didn’t know whether the accident happened past the point her mom had set at that time.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the mother and her company on all of the passenger’s claims. Also, the trial court found that there was no negligent entrustment because of the following facts:
- The 14-year-old took the Jeep that day without her mother’s permission;
- The accident occurred in a location where she wasn’t permitted to drive; and
- The mother had no knowledge that her daughter was an incompetent driver.
As to the mother’s company, the trial court found that it was entitled to summary judgment because it didn’t own the Jeep, and there was no connection between the teens’ “joyride” and the business. The trial court further found that the passenger was barred from recovering based on principles of comparative negligence, the avoidance doctrine, and assumption of the risk.
The Passenger’s Appeal
On appeal, the passenger argued that the trial court erred in ruling that the driver’s mother couldn’t be held liable for negligent entrustment. Judge Jeffrey A. Watkins of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Moreover, in a motion for summary judgment, the moving party’s burden may be discharged by pointing out by reference to the affidavits, depositions, and other documents in the record that there’s an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. If the moving party meets this burden, the nonmoving party can’t rest on her pleadings, but rather must point to specific evidence giving rise to a triable issue.
In a negligent entrustment claim, liability arises from the negligent act of the owner in lending his vehicle to another to drive with actual knowledge that the driver is incompetent or habitually reckless. Thus, to recover under this theory of negligence, a plaintiff must prove that the vehicle owner gave the allegedly incompetent driver permission to drive the vehicle.
Here, both the driver and her mother testified that the 14-year-old wasn’t allowed to drive the Jeep without asking first, and it was undisputed that the girl didn’t ask her mother for permission on the day of the accident. The passenger characterized the 14-year-old and her mother’s testimony regarding this rule as self-serving and insisted that it should be treated as an issue of credibility for the jury to resolve. However, the judge explained that an issue of credibility isn’t a concern if there’s no conflicting or contradictory evidence, and the passenger didn’t refute the driver and her mother’s affidavit and deposition testimony regarding the existence of this rule.
The judge noted that the Georgia Supreme Court has stated, “[w]here, as here, direct and positive testimony is presented on an issue, the opposing party must show some other fact which contradicts the testimony.”
If this other fact is direct evidence, that is sufficient to allow the case to go to the jury; if the other fact is circumstantial evidence, it must be inconsistent with the defendant’s evidence, or if consistent, it must demand a finding of fact on the issue in favor of the plaintiff. In passing upon a motion for summary judgment, a finding of fact which may be inferred but is not demanded by circumstantial evidence has no probative value against positive and uncontradicted evidence that no such fact exists.
The Court of Appeals Affirms
Judge Watkins and the Court of Appeals held that in the face of the driver and her mother’s deposition and affidavit testimony that the girl was only allowed to drive the Jeep if she asked her mom first, the passenger argued that the following facts created a genuine dispute as to whether such a rule existed:
- The driver’s mother had allowed the driver to drive the Jeep on previous occasions, including the night before;
- The mother knew her daughter had broken her driving rules before, but still let her drive; and
- The mother left the keys to the Jeep in the vehicle itself, so the vehicle was readily accessible to her daughter.
However, the judge found that none of this evidence was inconsistent with a rule that the girl was required to ask her mom before driving the Jeep, and none of it demanded a finding that, at the time of the accident, the 14-year-old was driving the Jeep with her mother’s permission even though she didn’t ask first.
Where the record shows that a driver was required to ask the owner for permission before driving the car, the driver’s previous use of that car doesn’t establish that she had the owner’s permission at the particular time in question. Judge Watkins said this is true even when the owner leaves the keys in the car. And although the 14-year-old had broken her mother’s driving rules in the past by driving farther than allowed, there was no indication that she’d ever taken the Jeep without asking first. Therefore, the mother’s leaving the keys in the Jeep wasn’t evidence that she was waiving the rule that the 14-year-old ask her permission before taking the Jeep.
In the absence of evidence that the mother gave her 14-year-old daughter permission to drive the Jeep at the time of the accident, the passenger’s claim for negligent entrustment failed as a matter of law. As a result, the trial court correctly granted the mother’s motion for summary judgment. The judgment was affirmed. Bassett v. Winfield Farm, Inc., 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 391 (Ga. App. August 14, 2023).
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