Lending a son or daughter your vehicle to go pick up dinner, drive to soccer practice, or to simply meet some friends at a party is an afterthought for most.  However, if your child is inexperienced, has a problem with drugs or alcohol, or has run afoul of local traffic ordinances in the past, this simple act of loaning a car for the afternoon could have very serious legal consequences.  This is particularly the case if they injure a third party in an automobile accident.  While certainly the health and safety of your own child would and should be at the forefront of your mind after they are involved in an automobile accident, under the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment, you could also be liable if the third party driver is injured.

A Seminal Case- Casebolt v. Cowan

The Colorado Supreme Court officially adopted the tort of negligent entrustment in the Spring of 1992 when it decided the case of Casebolt v. Cowan.  In this case, the plaintiffs sued after the wrongful death of a family member, Lindel Casebolt, who died in an automobile accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.  The family sued the deceased’s employer, William Cowan, who loaned Mr. Casebolt his vehicle after observing him drinking alcoholic beverages.  There was some dispute as to how much Mr. Casebolt drank as well as the extent to which Mr. Cowan was aware that Mr. Casebolt was intoxicated. 

The plaintiffs in this case sued Mr. Cowan under the theory of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle, arguing that he was negligent, i.e. breached a duty to Mr. Casebolt, by providing him with a dangerous instrumentality, a motor vehicle, with knowledge that Mr. Casebolt was intoxicated and would likely harm himself or others.  The Supreme Court was asked to determine whether such a cause of action existed in Colorado and whether such a duty was owed by Mr. Cowan.  To put the issue more simply, the Court considered whether “a defendant owes a plaintiff a duty to act or refrain from acting in order to avoid injury to that plaintiff.”  The existence of this duty is the basis for the tort of negligent entrustment.

Negligent Entrustment as defined in the Law Books

The Supreme Court noted that the negligent entrustment tort is set forth in one of the leading law texts, The Restatement (Second) of Torts.  The Restatement (Section 308) defines negligent entrustment as follows:

It is negligence to permit a third person to use a thing or to engage in an activity which is under the control of the actor, if the actor knows or should know that such person intends or is likely to use the thing or to conduct himself in the activity in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others. 

The Supreme Court has more or less adopted this definition of the tort as described in Section 308 of the Restatement.  The Court also adopted Section 390, which establishes a working framework for dealing with negligent entrustment of a vehicle:

One who supplies directly or through a third person a [vehicle] for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself …or be endangered by its use, is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them.

With this legal framework in place, the Supreme Court sought to answer the question of whether the supplier of the automobile, Mr. Cowan, should be held liable for the death of Mr. Casebolt.  Ultimately, the Court found that Mr. Cowan could be liable under the doctrine of negligent entrustment and sent the case back down to the District Court for consideration of all the evidence at trial.  The Court ruled that Mr. Cowan had a duty to take reasonable action to refuse to allow Mr. Casebolt to borrow his automobile if he possessed knowledge that Mr. Casebolt “was likely to use the vehicle in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself or others.”  The Court concluded that it was sound public policy to adopt the tort of negligent entrustment because, “the risk presented by…entrustment, or the continuation of an entrustment, of a vehicle to a person likely to drive it while inebriated is an unreasonable one.” 

Resources

Casebolt v. Cowan, 829 P.2d 352 (Colo. 1992).

Restatement (Second) of Torts, (1965), Section 308.

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Pollock, P.C., 303-795-5900 – www.bellpollock.com or www.championsofthepeople.com – Denver Injury
Attorneys, Champions of the People.  You can access all of our free
podcasts on our website, just click on "Bell & Pollock on the Radio"

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Bradley P. Pollock

Licensed since 1978

Member at firm Bell & Pollock, P.C.

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