What kind of duty do you owe to drunken passengers?

Duty of careA recent article from the ABA Journal mentions an interesting legal issue, surrounding sad circumstances, from a case out of New Orleans. The article discusses that the father of a man who died in a hit-and-run accident, after being kicked out of his friend’s car, sued the friend (the driver) for compensation. The son was apparently drunk and belligerent, so the friend forced him out of the car.

The father sued for the wrongful death, and the jury found the friend 28% liable. The hit-and-run driver was found 18% liable, and the deceased was found 54% liable. The case was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, where the driver argued he had no special duty to his friend to get him home safely. He argued that his friend was interfering with his ability to drive safely. However, the Court of Appeals said he did have a duty of care to the deceased and other passengers in the car. The Court however, rejected the father’s argument that the jury erred in finding the hit-and-run driver only 18% responsible. The friend-driver now owes damages of $317,000 to the father.

Duty of Care

An individual doesn’t normally have a duty to assist others. For example, if you passed a person who fell down, you don’t owe a duty to help them up. Our own decency may require us to do so though. There are also certain legal relationships that require a duty of care, that is, to exercise reasonable care. However, even if no relationship exists between individuals, you may have a legal duty to a person when you assume a duty to assist them. The duty: to use reasonable care. Back to my earlier example, if you decide to help the person up who fell, you would have a duty to use reasonable care in assisting them.

In Colorado, a plaintiff who brings a negligence action and intends to recover under a common-law assumption of duty theory must show two things:

  1. that the defendant undertook to render a service that was reasonably calculated to prevent the injury the plaintiff received, and
  2. either that the plaintiff relied on the defendant to perform the service or that the defendant’s undertaking increased the plaintiff’s risk of being harmed.

Additionally, Colorado also has a “Good Samaritan” law, which if a person in good faith assists another in an emergency without compensation, that assisting person would not be liable for civil damages for acts or omissions made in good faith.

Now, the case in New Orleans had a driver who assumed a duty to provide transportation to his intoxicated friend, and was to use reasonable care in assisting that friend. Common sense tells you that the driver owed a duty of reasonable care in driving the car safely. But the driver also owed a duty to get the friend home safely by choosing to drive him home. Thus, when he expelled him from the car that duty did not end. When you take on the duty of dealing with a drunken friend or passenger, you need to think about what that duty entails and when that duty ends. Because the driver owed that duty to his friend, the passenger, he was partially responsible for the friend’s death even though he was not the person who hit him.

I think the most interesting aspect here is the division of liability. Sadly, but clearly, the drunken person was the one who was most responsible for causing his own death; however, the friend was more responsible than the hit-and-run driver. This is something we should all think about. It should force us to continue to at least use reasonable care in everything we do, and require us to consider the best and safest ways to help others when we choose to do so.

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