That statute states that
"The owner of a motor vehicle is liable for an injury caused by the negligent operation of the motor vehicle whether the negligence consists of a violation of a statute of this state or the ordinary care standard required by common law."
Thus, there is a liability created by statute so that someone is responsible in the event of an accident. Florida has a similar law, called the "dangerous instrumentality doctrine." This protects "members of the public who are injured by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle. It "impos(es) strict vicarious liability on those with an identifiable property ownership interest in the vehicle." Christensen v. Bowen, 140 So. 3d 498 (Fla 2014). Essentially, if your name is on the vehicle title, you are responsible for the acts of whomever you lend the vehicle.
Despite the statutory liability described in Michigan, the attorney representing the vehicle owner reportedly intends to defend the allegations in court. He is quoted by Yahoo News describing this as a challenging situation for any vehicle owner who allows a valet or vehicle servicer or others to operate a vehicle. How the dispute is resolved of course depends on intricacies of Michigan law. In Florida, it is possible that the same immunity that protects the employer, section 440.11, might well protect those who lease or lend (the vehicle owner) to the employer, if "the leased or borrowed equipment was in the exclusive control of the employer." See Clements v. Wildlife Conservation Soc., 750 So. 2d 715, 716 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000). Thus, perhaps the outcome of such a case may depend on the law of the state in which the tragedy occurs.
The lawyer for the Michigan plaintiff (Mr. Hawkins' estate) is seeking $15 million, and claims there is no damage or injury to the car's owner because the "dealership where the incident occurred has been ordered by the court to indemnify" the vehicle owner. As the lawyer explains it, "in reality, the (vehicle) owner is going to be held responsible, but the dealership's insurance company is paying.” There is, therefore, no similar "exclusive control" workers' compensation immunity extension to the vehicle owner who allows some business' employee to operate it.
Thus, in a somewhat circular fashion, the immunity of Michigan workers' compensation is perhaps being circumvented. See Section 418.131, Mich. Statutes. The technician is (or was) also reportedly a defendant in the lawsuit, according to Yahoo. There is a decided lack of clarity in the news stories regarding whether the coworker technician remains a defendant, or has been afforded the coworker immunity described in section 418.827, Mich. Statutes. If the coworker is liable for operating the vehicle as alleged “in a careless, reckless and wanton manner in total disregard of the rights and safety of others,” that may be merely a foundation for the plaintiff to seek damages from the vehicle owner. In other words, the technician's presence as a defendant may be essentially to set the stage for establishing the vehicle owner's responsibility.
Interestingly, however, will be whether the "dangerous instrumentality" law in Michigan is successfully employed by Mr. Hawkins' estate to reach tort recovery from the employer despite the purported shield of workers' compensation immunity that an employer might anticipate would prevent such lawsuits. The posture of the case in the trial courts is currently trending in the news. However, the case remains in litigation and any outcome in the trial court may be subject to review in an appellate court. The story, however, illustrates much.
State laws regarding workers' compensation may differ from those of other states. Employers would be well served to consider the exceptional (manual transmissions) that can confront their employees. Co-workers may or may not be immune to tort liability, depending upon state law. Seemingly, and similarly, those who own dangerous instrumentalities could potentially face liability in the event of injury (beyond a car in this example, consider cranes, drilling rigs, and other tools of various trades). There can be much time invested in litigation, and many legal intricacies to sort.
It is an interesting story that brings much about which to think. How the Michigan courts, or the parties there, sort out these various questions may be interesting to watch.
By Judge David Langham
Courtesy of Florida Workers' Comp