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Driver Who Drank a Bottle of Scotch not Agent of Car Owner (NJ)

March 4, 2016

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When a plaintiff involved in a motor vehicle accident seeks to hold the owner of the offending vehicle liable for the actions of the driver, the plaintiff must prove that the driver was acting as the owner’s agent at the time of the accident. Although agency generally turns on a relatively simple question -- whether the driver operating the owner’s vehicle at the request or for the benefit of the owner at the time of the accident -- a recent New Jersey case, <em><a href="http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/decisions/VaidyanathanOp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Vaidyanathan v. Martinez</a></em>, highlights how nuanced the answer to the relatively simple question can be.
At the time of the accident, the defendant had given authority to the driver to use her vehicle to transport her daughter from Hillside to Newark.  Unbeknownst to the defendant, the driver had already drank a pina colada prior to getting behind the wheel of the defendant’s car. That fact alone may not have defeated the agency relationship between the defendant and the driver. However, also unknown to the defendant, the driver detoured from his route to stop at a liquor store, and drank enough scotch such that his blood alcohol level rose to .31%, well above New Jersey’s legal limit of .08%.
The plaintiff claimed that the driver was acting as the defendant’s agent when the driver rear-ended the plaintiff’s vehicle, because he was ostensibly running an errand for the defendant. However, the court found that the driver’s act of stopping at a liquor store and drinking a significant amount of alcohol exceeded the scope of the authority the defendant had granted the driver (driving from Hillside to Newark to retrieve her daughter) to use her vehicle for her benefit. On these grounds, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted.
Thanks to Emily Kidder for her contribution to this post and please write to <a href="mailto:mbono@wcmlaw.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Mike Bono</a> for more information.

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