If you see a U-Haul or other rented moving truck on the streets or highways of Wright County, an incompetent driver is probably behind the wheel. A fully-loaded, 17-foot truck may weigh up to 25,000 pounds. Even experienced drivers have a hard time managing these huge vehicles. Novice drivers who do not know the area and probably do not even have commercial drivers’ licenses are clearly incompetent.
The negligent entrustment rule states that vehicle owners are liable for damages if they allow incompetent driver to use their vehicles, and those drivers cause collisions. But commercial negligent entrustment cases are more complex, because of an obscure federal law called the Graves Amendment.
This complication is significant. Large truck crashes often cause catastrophic injuries, and many U-Haul drivers have little or no insurance. Fortunately, the Graves Amendment has some key loopholes, so law firms in Buffalo, MN can usually still obtain maximum compensation in these matters.
What is the Graves Amendment?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, juries in several states ordered vehicle rental companies to pay millions of dollars in damages after several horrific crashes. As a result, the companies threatened to pull out of these states.
To prevent this outcome, Congressman Sam Graves (D-MO) attached what later became 49 U.S.C. 30106 to a large transportation bill. Lawmakers often attach policy and special-interests riders to must-pass bills, and the Graves Amendment definitely fit into this category. Its sole purpose is to protect vehicle rental establishments in Missouri and a few other states.
There are no hearings or any other legislative history regarding the Graves Amendment. There is only a brief floor debate. Additionally, like many policy riders, the Graves Amendment is rather poorly drafted. So, law firms in Buffalo, MN have a good chance to get around the Graves Amendment in a truck wreck claim. The two most common approaches are outlined below.
Law Firms in Buffalo, MN and the “Not Otherwise Negligent” Requirement
Commercial negligent entrustment immunity only applies if the owner or agent was not negligent during the transaction. So, the agent or owner must follow all applicable industry standards. Violating these standards is evidence of negligence.
Here, the relevant standard involves drivers’ license verification. When the Graves Amendment became law in 2002, most agents and owners visually inspected a renter’s drivers’ license, and that was it. If the license was facially valid, the person could rent the truck.
But more and more companies like U-Haul run drivers’ license checks before they rent vehicles. Customers who have safety-suspended licenses are ineligible, or should be ineligible, to rent trucks. The same thing is arguably true if the customer has a poor driving record which includes a recent safety suspension or an at-fault accident.
Mere failure to verify the license may be negligent, but it may not be enough to invoke the negligent entrustment doctrine. Typically, the victim/plaintiff must prove that the owner knew the driver was incompetent. Constructive knowledge (should have known) is normally insufficient.
The “Trade or Business” Requirement
As mentioned, the Graves Amendment is poorly drafted and lawmakers held no hearings. So, it’s impossible to interpret key phrases like “trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles.” Therefore, law firms in Buffalo, MN must look elsewhere.
The Uniform Commerical Code, which lawyers and judges often use in contracts cases, defines “merchant,” which is a similar term, as “a person who deals in goods of the kind or otherwise by his occupation holds himself out as having knowledge or skill peculiar to the practices or goods involved in the transaction.” Most U-Haul dealers in Wright County do not fit this definition.
Typically, these businesses do not exclusively rent trucks. They are usually moving and storage companies which have a few trucks available on the side. By analogy, a convenience store is not a liquor store even if it sells copious amounts of beer and wine.
Furthermore, the employees at these establishments have no specialized knowledge about the vehicles they rent. They know nothing about engine torque, air conditioner BTU capacity, or anything similar.
Damages in a commercial negligent entrustment claim usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.
Additionally, since these cases usually involve additional negligence as outlined above, many Wright County jurors award additional punitive damages in these cases. These damages are designed to punish the negligent actor and deter future wrongdoing.
Contact an Aggressive Attorney
Despite the Graves Amendment, U-Haul truck owners may be legally responsible for damages. For a free consultation with an attorney at a law firm in Buffalo, MN, contact Carlson & Jones, P.A. Home and hospital visits are available.