Friends Keep Their Promises & Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk (NJ)
Is an individual who volunteers and assures police officers during a car stop of an alleged drunk driver that he will take the drunk driver and his car safety home – but instead relinquishes the car back to the drunk driver before reaching that destination – civilly liable if the drunk driver then collides with and injures another motorist?
In this case, Diaz v. Reynoso, police stopped a motorist traveling in the wrong direction on a one-way street. After investigating, police concluded that the driver was too intoxicated to drive and allowed him to contact a friend to come to take possession of the vehicle. The defendant (friend) eventually arrived on the scene and assured officers that he would drive the vehicle along with the intoxicated motorist to a safe location. Police issued the motorist a traffic citation for driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street and allowed the defendant to take possession of the vehicle and drive the motorist.
However, shortly after that defendant returned the vehicle to the motorist at a railroad crossing and went his separate way. The motorist resumed driving, ultimately crashing into the plaintiff’s vehicle, causing the plaintiff to sustain injuries. The accident took place approximately thirty-three minutes after the officers had issued the traffic ticket to the motorist. Both the plaintiff and motorist were taken to the hospital for treatment. Several hours after the accident, the motorist gave consent to hospital staff to draw his blood for toxicological testing, which showed the motorist’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (“BAC”) was over New Jersey’s legal limit.
In December of 2019, the plaintiff filed negligence cause of action against the intoxicated motorist, the friend, the two police officers who allowed the friend to take possession of the motorist’s vehicle at the initial scene, and the City of Englewood. Police co-defendants asserted cross-claims against the motorist’s friends for contribution and indemnity.
The motorist’s friend moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims against him, arguing that he owed no legal duty to the plaintiff and is not liable for the accident. The trial court ruled in the friend’s favor and dismissed the plaintiff’s claim against the friend and the cross-claims against him by the police defendants. On appeal, the court reversed, stating “a volunteer who fails to discharge his commitment to the police that he or she will take charge of a person who appears to be unfit to drive and who after that willingly allows that visibly intoxicated motorist to resume driving can bear a portion of the civil liability for an ensuing motor vehicle accident caused by that drunk driver.” However, the court ruled that such a duty was contingent on the volunteer being advised by police or otherwise having reason to know that failing to carry out their promise to transport the intoxicated motorist safely and their vehicle could result in civil liability.
The case was remanded back to the trial court for further discovery and development of the record.
Thanks to Irving Fayman for his contribution to this post. Should you have any questions, please contact Tom Bracken.