Car accident claims seem to always be filed against another driver. Why is it that you never
hear about a car accident claim filed against a passenger who caused or
contributed to a crash? Is it not possible for a passenger to be liable
for an accident, even in the most extreme circumstances in which they
actively try to cause one?
In short, “passenger liability” for a car accident does not
exist. You cannot sue a passenger for your damages after a car accident
– but only if they were truly a “passenger” in that
vehicle. This wrinkle in liability law and passenger responsibilities
overall require some explanation.
Driver’s Duty to Control Their Passengers
Every driver has a duty to safely control their motor vehicle at all times.
If they cannot, then they should not be operating it,
i.e., they should find a safe place to stop the vehicle until operating it would
be safe. This situation usually applies when discussing
exhausted drivers who need an extended respite to regain sobriety or concentration. It also
applies to drivers with unruly or distracting passengers, though.
If a driver is at risk of losing control of their vehicle because of an
unruly passenger, then they need to take immediate action to stop the
vehicle and remove themselves from the situation. Or, in a less dramatic
situation, a driver who is being distracted by one of their passengers
— such as chatting with them or asking them to pass them food as
they drive — also needs to assess the situation and stop driving
until the passenger no longer distracts them.
Because a driver has a duty to control their passengers or avoid passenger-related
distractions, liability for a car accident they cause still remains on
them. Even if a driver had four passengers singing loudly in the car with
the intention of annoying and distracting that driver, none of those passengers
would get “passenger liability” in a crash because that is
not a thing. Liability would stay on the driver because they failed their
duty to safely operate their vehicle under given conditions.
Passenger Negligence Affects Their Own Liability
Passengers should not assume they are free of any liability consequences
if they intentionally try to distract their driver, though. If that driver
gets into a crash, and the passenger is injured, then the argument could
be made that their own negligence contributed to the crash, reducing how
much compensation they could demand from that driver. This unusual situation
usually only plays out in single-vehicle accidents in which the passenger
was not related to the driver, though.
A more common situation that can come up in a passenger-involved accident
is the “assumption of risk.” If a passenger willingly gets
into a vehicle driven by someone who they know is drunk, impaired, distracted,
or exhausted, then it could be argued that they assumed and accepted a
higher risk of injury by getting into that car. Assumption of risk will
likely not eliminate the driver’s liability if a crash occurs, but
it would probably increase the claimant’s liability by some noticeable degree.
When a Passenger is a Driver
Bizarrely, a passenger can be considered a driver whenever their hand is
on the steering wheel of a motor vehicle. As a driver, they can be assigned
liability for a car accident and have a claim filed against their auto
insurance policy by injured third parties.
This rule can apply if a passenger intentionally tries to cause their driver
to crash, such as lunging for the steering wheel and yanking it one way
or another. Because the passenger had taken partial control of the vehicle,
they are considered a driver.
For more questions about a crash caused by a passenger in Pennsylvania,
call (888) 286-2850 and speak with Metzger Wickersham. Schedule your free consultationnow.