William W. Hurst
Law Office of William W. Hurst, LLC
50 S. Meridian St., Suite 600, Indianapolis, IN 46204
William Bill Hurst – Your Indiana Car Accident Attorney
It seems that there is a common belief that when a person is in an auto accident and does not have a valid driver’s license that the person may somehow be responsible for the accident. This is a myth. Whether it is because a driver’s license has expired or invalidated or the person could not get a license to begin with, many accidents occur where one driver does not have a valid driver’s license. Whether or not you are that unlicensed driver, you might wonder whether the lack of a license will automatically make that “license-less” person responsible for the accident.
In order for a driver of a vehicle to be found responsible (/“liable”) for an accident, it must be shown that the driver was negligent in the operation of the motor vehicle. It must also be found that that negligent behavior was the “proximate cause” of the accident. In determining the proximate cause, the rule is that the injury must be the “natural and probable consequence” of the negligent act. Hawkins v. Cannon, 826 N.E.2d 658 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005).
The question then arises, is driving a motor vehicle without a license “negligent?” And if it is negligent, was the accident the “natural and probable consequence” of driving without a license? The Indiana Supreme Court has made its view clear on these matters in several cases:
“We are unable to see how [age], or lack of an operator’s license, could be the proximate cause of an injury. It is true that lack of skill or knowledge concerning the operation of an automobile may cause an injury… [b]ut if a person, adult or minor, unlicensed to operate an automobile, is entrusted with one and operates it with that degree of care and skill that is required of a licensed operator, negligence cannot be [based] upon the mere fact of [age] or lack of an operator’s license.”
Opple v. Ray, 208 Ind. 450, 455, 195 N.E. 81, 83 (1935). Thus more would need to be shown than just lack of a driver’s license. The Indiana Supreme Court has said that one must look to the “facts surrounding the accident” to see whether the person was driving “with that degree of care and skill that is required of a licensed operator.” Negligence cannot be predicated upon the mere fact of minority or lack of such license.” Shaw v. Hart, 136 Ind. App. 567, 569-70, 202 N.E.2d 587, 588 (1964). Some Indiana courts have even held that evidence showing lack of a license cannot be presented at trial! Nesvig v. Town of Porter, 668 N.E.2d 1276, 1285 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996). All in all, lack of a driver’s license really has nothing to do with whether a person is responsible for an accident, though the unlicensed driver is guilty of breaking the Indiana law requiring all drivers to have a license, but that is a criminal matter.
Another question one might have is if you, as the owner of a car, are liable for loaning your car to someone without a license when then causes a car accident. This concept is known as “negligent entrustment” and has been previously discussed in our blog: Am I Responsible for the Accident Caused by the Friend/Family who Borrowed my Car?. To be held responsible for the negligent entrustment of a vehicle, it must be shown that the vehicle owner entrusted the vehicle to a driver with knowledge [at the time of the loan] that the driver was “incompetent to drive”. Johnson v. Owens, 639 N.E.2d 1016, 1022 (Ind.Ct.App.1994). One is incompetent to drive if he/she is incapacitated (i.e. drunk), uninstructed in the vehicle’s use, or unfamiliar with the dangers of using the vehicle. Stocker v. Cataldi, 489 N.E.2d 144, 145 (Ind.Ct.App.1986). Interestingly, courts have varied on whether negligent entrustment can be shown by loaning a car to an unlicensed driver. Some courts have found that lack of a license is irrelevant to “incompetence to drive” while others have found that lack of a license can prove negligent entrustment in some situations. The cases seem to hinge on whether the driver did not possess sufficient skills to drive as evidenced by the lack of a drivers license. See Cedars ex rel. Cedars v. Waldon, 706 N.E.2d 219 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999); Johnson v. Owens, 639 N.E.2d 1016, 1022 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994)). Still other courts have held that negligent entrustment by the vehicle owner cannot be found unless the driver to which the car was entrusted is himself found negligent; such courts want to see both negligent entrustment as well as negligence from the driver. Standard Mut. Ins. Co. v. Bailey, 868 F.2d 893, 897-899 (7th Cir. 1989). Overall, when it comes to loaning out your car, it would be wise to be careful who you lend it to! Depending on the court, you might be found liable if the driver doesn’t have a license and caused an accident.
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