By Greg Johnson. Every once in a while, while putting together a blog post on a particular issue, I run across a case that doesn’t fit into the post I am putting together, but is nonetheless interesting.
Here’s an oldie, but a goodie . . . involving trees:
The Minnesota vicarious liability statute, which generally operates to impose vicarious liability on the owner of a motor vehicle, is not necessarily limited to claims involving the negligent operation of the motor vehicle. In Pluntz v. Farmington Ford-Mercury, Inc., 470 N.W.2d 709 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991) review denied (Minn. Jul 24, 1991), Leander, a permissive user of the dealership’s vehicle, suffered a sudden and unexpected medical emergency while operating the vehicle, ran off the road and damaged plaintiff’s trees. Although it was undisputed Leander went off the road as the result of an unforeseen medical problem and, thus, was not negligent, the statute which created liability for the damage to the trees, Minn. Stat. § 561.04, did not require a finding of negligence. Rather, it imposed liability for injury to trees when trees were damaged without lawful authority. Thus, whether Leander was negligent for causing the damage to the trees was irrelevant. Because Leander did not have lawful authority to damage the trees, he was liable pursuant to section 561.04. In addition, the dealership was liable. The dealership was vicariously liable based on the agency relationship created by section 170.54 (now 169.09, subd. 5a). The court noted that the term “accident” in the vicarious liability statute (which was not defined in the statute) included “an event that takes place without one’s foresight or expectation” or “an event which proceeds from an unknown cause,” (citing Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 1983)), and the damage to the trees resulted from an “accident.” Id. The court noted that while the statute “is typically used to impose liability on the owner of a car for negligent operation by the owner’s permittee . . . the statute is not restricted to negligence cases.” Id. Rather, the statute reflects public policy to hold owners of motor vehicles responsible for damages caused by their permittees and there was no reason to depart from that public policy in this case. (Note that under the federal Graves Amendment, which I have addressed in a few prior posts, the owner of a rented vehicle would not be vicariously liable for the tree damage under similar circumstances).
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