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Owner of Vehicle Found Not Liable for Intoxicated Driver’s Actions in Causing Auto Accident

By on February 12, 2016 in Liability with 0 Comments

​Plaintiff Ranjani Vaidyanathan was injured in an automobile accident on April 29, 2012 when the driver Joaquin Martinez (“Joaquin”) rear ended her vehicle. At the time, he was driving a vehicle owned by Venessa Martinez. He was very intoxicated, with his blood alcohol level tested at .31%, well past the legal limit. In the Law Division case, Vaidyanathan v. Martinez, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 128 (Law Div. Jan. 22, 2016), the issue was whether Joaquin was acting as Venessa’s agent at the time and, hence, making her liable for his actions.

Venessa had lent Joaquin her vehicle to go pick up her daughter at Venessa’s father’s house in Hillside and bring her back to Venessa’s house in Newark. At the time she lent her vehicle to Joaquin, she was unaware that he had consumed a 16 ounce pina colada. On the way to Venessa’s father’s house, Joaquin stopped off at a liquor store and consumed enough scotch to make him so intoxicated that Venessa’s father would not permit Joaquin to drive with her daughter in her car.

​Joaquin left Hillside without Venessa’s daughter and en route to Newark, he rear ended plaintiff’s vehicle.

​Plaintiff sued Venessa, claiming that Joaquin was acting as her agent to the extent he was performing a task for her. Vanessa argued that she should not be liable for Joaquin’s injuries because he exceeded the scope of his authority when he obtained a bottle of scotch and became too intoxicated to bring her daughter back to Newark. Thus, the issue to be decided by the court was the scope of the authority Venessa granted Joaquin and whether he exceeded the scope of that authority.

​The court noted that, in New Jersey, when a vehicle is operated on a highway by someone other than the vehicle’s owner, there is a rebuttable presumption that the driver is acting as the owner’s agent. However, if the owner can produce evidence that the driver was acting outside the scope of their authority, the claim against the owner should be dismissed. An agency relationship may be terminated when the agent takes on an errand of their own and goes beyond the instructions of the vehicle’s owner.

​Here, Venessa’s grant of authority to Joaquin was limited to driving to Hillside, retrieving her daughter, and returning her to Newark. When Joaquin, instead drove to a liquor store to purchase scotch and become too intoxicated to return her daughter to Newark, he exceeded the scope of that authority and he failed to accomplish her errand. Thus, his actions in buying and consuming the scotch terminated the agency relationship.

​Accordingly, Venessa produced sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of agency created by Joaquin in operating her vehicle. Thus, he was found not to be acting as Venessa’s agent. The trial court held that Venessa was entitled to a judgment in her favor, dismissing the complaint as to her.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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