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Who is Responsible for an Accident Caused By a Car Thief?

Everyone knows they can be liable for an accident they cause while driving. Something not everyone knows: they can be liable for an accident someone else causes while driving. Cruz v. Middlekauff Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., a case that went before the Utah Supreme Court in 1996, shows us how.

The Story: A thief steals a car

One evening, a thief entered the car lot of Middlekauf Lincoln-Mercury and then proceeded to steal a Lincoln Town Car. The job was easy because Middlekauf always left their keys in their cars. The thief drove off with his new ride, unchallenged, into the night.

A few hours later, police located and pursued the stolen car. The thief, evading the police, sped through a red light and crashed into the car of Francisco Javier Cruz, injuring the driver and his wife, and killing their unborn child.

The Cruzes suffered severe damages and brought a lawsuit against Middlekauff, arguing the dealership was liable because it should have stopped the thief from stealing the car.

In response, Middlekauff filed a rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing the Cruzes didn't even have a case.

The Law: An owner can be liable for foreseeable acts

Surprisingly, cases like this happen frequently enough to have their own name: key-in-ignition cases. And usually, the person whose car is stolen, can't be held liable - unless there are "special circumstances."

This type of case is a civil law tort case, arguing liability based on negligence.

In order to prove negligence, a plaintiff must prove

•● The defendant had a duty to the plaintiff,

•● The defendant breached that duty,

•● That breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury, and

•● The plaintiff suffered damages.

In this case, damages are clear. Duty, breach, and proximate cause remain to be determined.

In order to establish duty in a key-in-ignition case, the plaintiff must show there were special circumstances that made it foreseeable that someone would both 1) steal the car and 2) drive it recklessly.

A court considers various indicators that may make theft of the car foreseeable. These include:

•● The car is unlocked and keys are in the ignition,

•● Significant criminal activity in the area of the vehicle,

•● Prior thefts of the owner's vehicles,

•● Irresponsible or reckless nature of people frequenting the area,

•● Lack of surveillance of the vehicle,

•● Vehicle left for an extended period of time,

•● Type and size of vehicle uniquely attractive or capable of inflicting serious damages,

•● The vehicle's access to public highways and roads,

•● Its accessibility to the public, and

•● Its operational condition.

To determine whether it was foreseeable the thief would drive the car recklessly, the court mainly just considers whether the thief would need to drive recklessly to evade police and if that could result in injury to people.

If duty is established because the accident was foreseeable, then there is very likely a breach also.

Similarly, proximate cause is also present if the accident was foreseeable. In simple terms, an action is the proximate cause of an injury if the court determines the actor should be liable. In a key-in-ignition case, the owner's action could be the proximate cause of an accident if the theft and subsequent reckless driving were foreseeable.

The Ruling: The owner is liable if a jury says so

The court sided with the Cruzes and decided the car dealership could be found liable, however, the ultimate decision would be left to a jury. So instead of dismissing this case because it would be absurd to hold an owner liable for the actions a thief, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that this case should be allowed to go before a jury because the thief's actions were foreseeable. The court noted these factors that determined foreseeability:

•● The numerous prior thefts of Middlekauff's key-in-ignition cars,

•● The public's unlimited access to the cars,

•● Middlekauff's management policy of leaving keys in the ignitions of cars parked for lengthy periods of time in a commercial area,

•● The cars' location permitting their unobstructed exit, and

•● Middlekauff's lack of surveillance or security, even during evening hours.

The Takeaway: Lock your cars

The key takeaway from this case is that car owners usually aren't liable for actions of third parties driving their cars, unless those actions are foreseeable. Owners: take your key out of the ignition and lock your doors. Drivers: as always, drive defensively. If you're in an accident, contact an attorney.

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