How Does the Court Determine Liability Against Franchises? Where to Drawthe Line
There were two important verdicts made against Avis Car Rental’s corporate office and its franchise in Atlanta in the last two years. I consider the lawyers on both sides of the case friends and fine attorneys, but the case's outcomes provide an interesting story. The case arose out of a tragic accident. An Avis franchise employee stole a car from the parking lot, and five hours later, he was chased by the police. The driver lost control and hit two young ladies sitting on a wall, resulting in the amputation of a leg for one woman and nearly $1 million in medical bills for the other. The civil cases were tried separately, and one case ended with a resulting verdict of $7 million. In the amputation case, a verdict of over $45 million in compensation was returned partially against Avis National. However, there is a long-standing legal precedent that says that the franchiser is not liable for the acts of the franchisee. In a Halloween decision, the Court of Appeals threw out the $7 million verdict entirely. The interesting part of the ruling seems to be the court's focus on time and separation of acts. While considering the issue of
whether Avis was directly liable for failing to foresee that an employee would steal a car, get in a police chase, and ultimately cause harm to innocent pedestrians, the court examined how closely connected the successful theft of the car and the injury event were. The Court ultimately ruled that “[The driver’s] intervening criminal conduct … was the proximate cause of [the victim’s] injuries. So, Avis was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” When considering the intervening cause, the court wrote "a venerable line of authority hold[s] that the alleged negligence of the owner [in creating conditions that allowed a vehicle to be stolen] is not the legal cause of personal injuries sustained due to the negligent operation of a stolen vehicle by a thief.” (Punctuation and citations omitted.) I recently had a discussion with a client who wanted to sue a hospital where a person admitted for insanity escaped, stole an ambulance with the keys in it, and ultimately collided with the client. But there were two reasons why the claim against the hospital would not fly. 2. The Court of Appeals’ decision in the Avis case makes it pretty clear that if the vehicle is pulling out of a parking lot and causes the crash, there is no break in the chain of causation. But the farther you get away in distance and time from the event, the less one is related to the other, from an approximate cause perspective. The end of the appeals in the case are ahead as it makes its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, but the principle will likely hold. You are not legally responsible for every single thing that happens after you commit a wrong act. There must be a pretty tight relationship. 1. The keys are in the ambulance to save time and lives when the EMTs have to respond to an emergency quickly. It's not negligence.
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