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Graves Amendment Immunity Denied To Auto Company If Liability Not Completely Based On Ownership (PA)

March 10, 2023

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In the recent case of <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Burns-v.-Shama-Express-LLC.pdf">Burns v. Shama Express LLC</a>,</em> The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania found the Graves Amendment to the Safe, Accountable Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Action of 2004 is inapplicable when the liability attempting to be placed on an automobile company is grounded, even in part, in any basis other than ownership.

Burns involves an automobile-trucking collision resulting in death of Plaintiff for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress, under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death and Survival Acts. Bowman owned the subject-truck that allegedly caused the accident. Plaintiff alleged, in part, that Bowman through its “employees, servants, or agents,” breached its duty, as the owner and operator of the subject-truck, “to be alert and maintain control of the vehicle,” and that Bowman negligently trained its truck operators.

Bowman filed a Motion to Dismiss arguing that its only involvement in the underlying events was that it leased the subject-truck, months before the incident took place, and was therefore immune from vicarious liability under the Graves Amendment.  The Graves Amendment provides:

(a) In general.—An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if—

(1) the owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and

(2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).

49 U.S.C. § 30106. The magistrate determined that “[b]ecause plaintiff had sufficiently alleged, at this initial stage, that Bowman was negligent, the Graves Amendment cannot serve as a basis for immunity.”

The court ultimately adopted the magistrate’s Report and Recommendation and dismissed the Motion to Dismiss. <em>Burns </em>is a cautionary tale for defendants engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles. It makes clear that Graves Amendment immunity from liability is only applicable to liability grounded exclusively in ownership; on the other hand, vehicle owners who themselves, or through agents, engage in negligence, are not protected by the Amendment.

Thanks to Stephen Kerstein for his assistance in this post.  Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact <a href="tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Tom Bracken</a>.

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