Commercial Auto: Owner of Semi-Trailer not Vicariously Liable for Negligent Operation of Semi-Truck.


What definition of “motor vehicle” applies when determining whether the Minnesota motor vehicle vicarious liability law applies?   The Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed the issue in late 2009.

By 2005, only eleven states imposed vicarious liability on the owner of motor vehicle (California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Rhode Island) as did the District of Columbia.  Under a vicarious liability law, the vehicle owner becomes legally liable for injuries and damages caused by a permissive driver of the motor vehicle. “[V]icarious liability is the ‘imposition of liability on one person for the actionable conduct of another, based solely on a relationship between the two persons.’” Sutherland v. Barton, 570 N.W.2d 1, 5 (Minn.1997) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1566 (6th ed.1990)).

The Minnesota vicarious liability law is found in Minn. Stat. § 169.09, subd. 5a (previously Minn. Stat. § 170.54), which sets forth the general rule as follows:

Whenever any motor vehicle shall be operated within this state, by any person other than the owner, with the consent of the owner, express or implied, the operator thereof shall in case of accident, be deemed the agent of the owner of such motor vehicle in the operation thereof.

The policy of the vicarious liability law is to ensure that members of the public have “an approximate certainty of an effective recovery” when injured by the operation of a motor vehicle.  Milbank Mut. Ins. Co. v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 332 N.W.2d 160, 165 (Minn. 1983). Minnesota courts have consistently reiterated that the statute must be interpreted liberally to accomplish its purpose. Id. at 165-66; Christensen v. Milbank Ins. Co., 643 N.W.2d 639, 642 -645 (Minn. Ct. App. 2002).  (As noted in previous posts to this blog, the motor vehicle vicarious liability statute is pre-empted by the federal Graves Amendment in the context of rented motor vehicles).

The vicarious liability statute only applies to statutorily defined “motor vehicles.” Prior to 2005, when the vicarious liability statute was codified at Minn. Stat. § 170.54 (and was then referred to as the Safety Responsibility Act), the statute did not contain any definition of “motor vehicle” or refer to any other statute which defined the term.  In Great Am. Ins. Co. v. Golla, 493 N.W.2d 602, 605 (Minn.App.1992), the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that the definition of motor vehicle found in section 65B.43 of the Minnesota No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act (No-Fault Act), as opposed to the definition found in chapter 169, applied to the vicarious liability statute. By its terms, the No-Fault Act’s section 65B.43 definitions only applied to sections 65B.41 through 65B.71 while the definitions in chapter 169 only applied to statutes within that chapter. Thus, neither definition of “motor vehicle” clearly applied to Minn. Stat. § 170.54. The Golla court had to apply some definition to the term in 170.54 and ultimately concluded that the No-Fault Act’s definition should apply to the vicarious liability statute. See also, State Automobile & Casualty Underwriters v. Runia, 363 N.W.2d 818, 820 (Minn. Ct. App.1985) (applying No-Fault Act definition and finding that a snowmobile fell outside the definition); Mularky v. Kiewel, 1996 WL 70982 (Minn. Ct. App. 1996) (applying No-Fault Act definition of motor vehicle).  The No-Fault Act defines the term in Minn. Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 2 as follows:

“Motor vehicle” means every vehicle, other than a motorcycle or other vehicle with fewer than four wheels, which (a) is required to be registered pursuant to chapter 168, and (b) is designed to be self-propelled by an engine or motor for use primarily upon public roads, highways or streets in the transportation of persons or property, and includes a trailer with one or more wheels, when the trailer is connected to or being towed by a motor vehicle.

The application of the No-Fault Acts definition to the vicarious liability statute was problematic in that some vehicles (including, among others, automobiles registered in other states) were not “required to be registered pursuant to chapter 168” giving rise to the argument that no vicarious liability would attach to the owner of an out-of-state vehicle in the event of an accident in Minnesota.  However, in 2005, the legislature repealed section 170.54 and relocated it in section 169.09, subd. 5a, thus bringing the vicarious liability statute within a chapter that contained its own definition of “motor vehicle.” Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 42 (defining “motor vehicle”).  Additionally, by express description, the definitions contained in section 169.011 apply to all of the statutes in chapter 169, which would include the vicarious liability statute. Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 1. In Vee v. Ibrahim,  769 N.W.2d 770, 771-775 (Minn. Ct. App. 2009) review denied (Sept. 29, 2009), the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the definition of “motor vehicle” in chapter 169, as opposed to the No-Fault Act definition, applies to the vicarious liability statute:

[T]he legislature has relocated the [vicarious liability] law within the scope of a specifically defining statute. * * * The legislature was aware that “motor vehicle” was defined by section 169.011 when it relocated the vicarious liability statute to the same chapter. This is strong evidence that the legislature intended the statute to be defined accordingly. If the legislature intended for chapter 65B’s motor-vehicle definition to apply to the vicarious liability statute, it had many means to indicate that inevident intention. It could have moved the statute within the expressly stated scope of the chapter 65B definitions. It could have amended the statute to expressly refer to the 65B definition. Or it could have left things as they were, tacitly acquiescing to this court’s construction in Golla. Instead, the legislature adopted a statutory definition for “motor vehicle” where previously none existed within the chapter that assigns vicarious liability. * * * We conclude that the intent of the legislature was to abrogate Golla implicitly. We hold that the definition of motor vehicle in chapter 169 applies to the vicarious liability statute.

The determination of which statutory definition of “motor vehicle” applied was of considerable significance in Vee v. Ibrahim,  769 N.W.2d 770, 771-775 (Minn. Ct. App. 2009). In that case, a semitruck and its trailer jackknifed after rear-ending a delivery truck, causing the trailer to swing into the oncoming lane and strike and seriously injure motorcyclist Randy Vee. The semitruck and semitrailer were separately owned. Randy Vee sued the two truck drivers and their employers.  He also sued the semitrailer’s owner, American President Lines (APL).  The claim against APL depended on APL being vicariously liable for the semitruck driver’s conduct.  The definition of “motor vehicle” found in the No-Fault Act, as noted above, defined the term “motor vehicle” to include “a trailer with one or more wheels, when the trailer is connected to or being towed by a motor vehicle.”  If the No-Fault Act definition applied, the owner of the trailer, APL, would have been vicariously liable for Vee’s injuries. By contrast, the definition in chapter 169 did not include a trailer.  Rather, Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 42, defines the term “motor vehicle” to mean:

“Motor vehicle” means every vehicle which is self-propelled and every vehicle which is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires. Motor vehicle does not include an electric personal assistive mobility device or a vehicle moved solely by human power.

Because the Minnesota Court of Appeals found the definition of “motor vehicle” appearing in section 169.011 applied, the semitrailer did not qualify as a motor vehicle under the vicarious liability statute. According to the definition, a motor vehicle is “self-propelled” or “powered by trolley wires.” Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 42. A semitrailer is neither. The court further noted that its holding that a semitrailer was not a motor vehicle complemented the statutory definition of “semitrailer,” which is a “[vehicle] designed [to be] used in conjunction with a truck-tractor” and “includes a trailer drawn by a truck-tractor semitrailer combination.” Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 72. A semitrailer therefore remains merely a “vehicle” even when it is drawn by a “motor vehicle.”  Because the motor-vehicle vicarious liability statute does not impose vicarious liability on the owners of semitrailers, APL was not vicariously liable for the accident.

Minnesota Statute § 169.09, subd. 5a, the vicarious liability statute, only applies to accidents that occur in the State of Minnesota.  In that event, the vehicle owner will be legally responsible (along with the permissive user) for all damages caused by the permissive user’s negligent operation of the vehicle. See, Boatwright v. Budak, 625 N.W.2d 483, 488 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001) (“[e]mploying a plain-meaning approach,” court held statute only applies “to accidents that occur within Minnesota”); Avis Rent-A-Car System v. Vang, 123 F.Supp.2d 504 (D. Minn. 2000) (Minnesota statute creating liability on part of owner for damages resulting from operation of automobile by another with owner’s consent did not apply to automobile accident in Michigan); West Bend Mut. Ins. Co. v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 586 N.W.2d 584 (Minn. Ct. App. 1998) (garage liability policy insuring Minnesota dealership’s vehicles did not afford any liability coverage for accident occurring involving dealership vehicle in Louisiana, a jurisdiction which did not impose vicarious liability). In light of the court’s holding in Vee v. Ibrahim,  769 N.W.2d 770, 771-775 (Minn. Ct. App. 2009) review denied (Sept. 29, 2009), which held that the statutory definition of “motor vehicle” in Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 42 applies to the motor vehicle vicarious liability statute (as opposed to the No-Fault Act’s definition), the owner of an out-of-state vehicle involved in an accident in Minnesota has no basis to contend that the vicarious liability law will not operate to impose vicarious liability on the owner.

This blog is for informational purposes only.  By reading it, no attorney-client relationship is formed.  The law is constantly changing and if you want legal advice, please consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. © All rights reserved. 2010.

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