RI Supreme Court: Car Rental Agency not Liable for Accident by contractually excluded driver
Under Rhode Island Law, the Owner of a motor vehicle is generally responsible for accidents caused by anyone who drives the motor vehicle with consent of the owner. In other words, an owner of a car is not responsible for an accident caused by someone who steals the car and negligently causes an accident resulting in injury or death.
In Stevens v Pichard, the Rhode Island Supreme court, in dictum, reasoned that as a matter of law, an Auto rental agency that owns a automobile is not liable for a vehicle driven negligently that causes personal injury when the driver of the vehicle was prohibited from driving the rental car under the rental contract.
According to Wikiquote “Dictum in legal terminology, dictum (plural dicta) is a statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative because of the dignity of the person making it, although it is not binding as law. Obiter dictum, Latin for “something said in passing”, is such a comment made while delivering a judicial opinion, but unnecessary to the decision in the case and therefore not precedential (although it may be considered persuasive).
Rhode Island Law Section 31–33–7 states “In all civil proceedings, evidence that at the time of the accident or collision the motor vehicle was registered in the name of the defendant, shall be prima facie evidence that it was being operated with the consent of the defendant, and the absence of consent shall be an affirmative defense to be set up in the answer and proved by the defendant.”
In Stevens v Pichardo, the Rhode Island Supreme Court stated “This Court has referenced an example of a ‘rare and exceptional case’ when, in dictum, it stated that “[a] situation in which a car rental agency expressly limits who is allowed to drive its vehicle * * * may be the rare and exceptional case that proves the affirmative defense of lack of consent as a matter of law .” Andreoni v. Ainsworth, 898 A.2d 1240, 1243 n.7 (R.I.2006)(discussing LaFratta v. Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, 751 A.2d 1281 (R.I.2000)). In such a case, summary judgment in favor of a rental agency-defendant would be appropriate because, absent some ambiguity or amendment to the original rental agreement, the plain language of the contract would limit the rental agency’s consent to drivers named in the agreement. See id.”