Tuesday, December 19, 2006, 3:24 PM

COA: Passenger Not Liable For 14-yr-old Driver's Deadly Negligence

In a case with awful facts, the COA today decided whether a backseat passenger owes a duty to third parties to prevent injury caused by a driver's negligence. The Court held today in Harris v. DaimlerChrysler Corp. that, as a matter of law, a backseat passenger owes no duty to take action to prevent a driver's tortious conduct. Not only that, the COA upheld Rule 11 sanctions against the plaintiff's counsel for filing the claim against the passenger. In this case, bad facts did not make bad law.

And the facts were bad. Plaintiff, about 7 mos pregnant, was driving in Durham. A car driving in the opposite direction crossed the center line and struck her car, causing her car to roll several times before coming to a rest on its roof. Plaintiff was required to have an emergency C-section. Her child was born with brain damage and died 4 days later from the trauma.

Turns out that the car that struck her was being driven by a 14-yr-old girl (no permit or license, obviously) driving with her father's permission. The father was a front seat passenger.

The appeal concerned a separate claim against a backseat passenger (Suen) who did not own the vehicle. Plaintiff alleged that Suen was negligent by failing to prevent the minor from operating the vehicle; by failing to exercise reasonable control and management over the vehicle to prevent injury to other drivers; and by failing to warn the community that an unlicensed minor was operating a motor vehicle. In essence, Plaintiff alleged that Suen could've taken over the operation of the car had he so chosen.

The trial court and COA held that Suen owed no duty and could not be liable. After surveying the case law for circumstances in which liability may be imposed for the tortious conduct of others, the COA concluded that Suen didn't fit within any recognized category: he didn't have a special relationship to the minor driver; he wasn't the owner-occupant of the vehicle; he wasn't on a joint enterprise with the driver; he didn't have the legal right or duty to control the operation of the vehicle and he didn't exercise control over the vehicle.

Having so concluded, the COA affirmed Rule 11 sanctions against plaintiff's counsel for filing the claim against Suen.

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