Can Vehicle Owners be Liable for Damages Caused by Their Stolen Vehicles?

Imagine this scenario: You are sitting at the end of a long line of cars at a stoplight, and suddenly, your vehicle is violently struck from behind by a speeding driver who didn’t stop in time. To add insult to injury, the driver speeds off and you couldn’t make out his license plate number. After you are treated for your injuries, it turns out that the car that hit you was stolen.

This situation raises an interesting question—who is liable for your damages, the thief or the vehicle owner? In most cases, the thief will be solely responsible for your injuries. However, as with every legal issue, there are exceptions to the rules. Read on to find out when, and under what circumstances, vehicle owners can be liable for damages caused by thieves driving their stolen vehicles.

Vehicle Owners are Generally Not Responsible for Damages Caused by Their Stolen Vehicles…

The common law rule in all 50 states is that the owner of a stolen vehicle cannot be held liable for damages if the vehicle is stolen and involved in an accident because the vehicle was taken without the consent of the owner. Under the “permissive use doctrine,” car owners are liable for personal injury or property damage resulting from negligence in the operation of their vehicle only by persons using the vehicle under the permission of the owner. Thus, liability is predicated on the express or implied permission of the owner. Since the owner of a stolen vehicle has not given the thief consent to use the vehicle, the owner cannot be held liable for any accidents and injuries the thief causes while operating the vehicle.

…Except for When They Are

As with every legal rule, there are always exceptions. In some states, such as New York, New Jersey, and Michigan, state statute imposes liability upon vehicle owners for damages caused by their stolen cars if they left the keys in the ignition or in plain sight.

The reasoning behind these “key in the ignition” statutes is that the vehicle owner has created a condition that makes their vehicles susceptible to theft, and the owner should thus be held accountable for any damages that arise therefrom.

While Georgia does not have a “key in the ignition” statute on the books, it does impose liability upon owners if they could reasonably foresee that their vehicle would be stolen. For example, in Roach v. Dozier, 103 S.E.2d 691 (Ga. Ct. App. 1958), the Georgia Court of Appeals stated that, while leaving the keys in the ignition is not enough to impose liability on the vehicle owner, the defendant vehicle owner could be held liable if it could be shown that he had actual knowledge that his nephew had previously taken his vehicle out for “joy rides” without his permission. Thus, under Georgia law, vehicle owners are not liable for damages caused by their stolen vehicles merely as a consequence of owning their cars or even leaving the keys in the ignition. However, a vehicle owner may be held liable if it can be shown that the owner had actual knowledge that a specific person had used their vehicle in the past without their permission and failed to take steps to stop them.

Contact an Atlanta Car Accident Attorney

If you have been injured in a car accident, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries. Contact the attorneys at Slappey & Sadd for a free consultation to discuss your case by calling 404.255.6677. We serve the entire state of Georgia, including the following locations: Atlanta, Roswell, and Marietta.

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