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Hey! Can I Borrow Your Car?

July 6, 2015 By Erin H. Cancienne

If you loan your car to friends or family, then you probably have heard this question before.  However, do you know your responsibility if your friend or family member gets into an accident.  The answer may surprise you.  Your responsibility can change depending on where the accident happened. 

Ordinarily in Maryland, the negligence of an operator of a motor vehicle will not be imputed to the owner who is not present in the vehicle. See Williams v. Wheeler, 252 Md. 75, 81, 249 A.2d 104 (1967); and Price v. Miller, 165 Md. 578, 582, 169 A. 800 (1934).  An exception to this rule exists when the driver is acting as the agent or servant of the owner.  An example of an agent or servant would include someone who drives your vehicle to run an errand for you, or as your employee.  An owner could also be held responsible if the owner has knowledge or should have knowledge that the driver will operate the vehicle in a manner involving an unreasonable risk of harm to others. 

In Washington, D.C., the Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act, D.C. Code §40-408, increases the likelihood that an owner will be held responsible for the negligence of the operator.  Under this law, whenever any motor vehicle is operated by any person other than the owner, with the consent of the owner, the operator is deemed to be the agent of the owner of such motor vehicle. This consent does not need to be for the specific use of the vehicle at the time of the accident, but can instead be a general consent to use the car as needed.  Also, consent can be implied by leaving keys in the open where the operator could take them.  The D.C. Courts have held that this applies even if the operator is not an agent or servant of the owner.  By creating a fictitious agency relationship between the driver and owner, the law is intended to make automobile owners more conscientious in the loaning of their vehicles by allowing injured plaintiffs to shift the negligent driver’s liability to the owner who consented to the use of the car. 

How does this apply in real life?  Let’s say your best friend has your permission to use your car whenever he needs it.  He knows where you keep your keys, and can get the keys at any time he needs them.  One day, he takes the keys, borrows your car, and gets into an accident that is his fault.  If the accident is in Maryland, then it is unlikely you, as the owner, will be held liable for this accident, unless you know your friend was likely to drive the car dangerously.  However, if the accident is in Washington, D.C. you as the owner will be held liable for the accident because you gave consent for the person to operate your vehicle.  This is regardless of whether you actually knew your friend was using your car on the day of the accident.