Understanding the concept of permissive use as it applies to automobile liability and auto accident cases can be challenging. Looking at the court case precedents that relate to this issue can often give plaintiffs and defendants a clearer picture of the likely outcomes in these types of cases.

What is Permissive Use?

Allowing a friend, family member or employee to drive a personal or corporate vehicle when they are not listed on the automobile liability policy grants these individuals permissive user status. According to the initial permission rule, any person who is given permission to use a vehicle is considered to continue to have permission for as long as the vehicle remains in his or her possession. The minor deviation rule allows for the continued use of the vehicle in the same manner as when permission was initially conveyed as long as that use does not materially or grossly violate the terms of the original permission.

Determining permissive user status in auto liability cases can be challenging because of disagreements on what constitutes permission and the meaning of uninterrupted possession by the driver. These two court cases have been used as precedents in determining permissive user status for auto accident cases.

French v. Hernandez

French vs. Hernandez is a 2005 case that was heard by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Enrique Hernandez, an employee of Decker Landscaping, was allowed to operate a vehicle belonging to John Decker on private property only and only when supervised by Decker. On August 13, 2000, however, Hernandez entered the locked garage where the vehicle was stored and took possession of the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Hernandez then drove the vehicle and was involved in a head-on crash with Linda French, the Plaintiff, who was injured in the auto accident.

While previous court rulings had found that Hernandez was a permissive user of the vehicle, the NJ Supreme Court found that Hernandez had not maintained continuous possession of the vehicle and had significantly deviated from the previous use of the vehicle that had been permitted by Decker. This ruling established Hernandez as an uninsured motorist and required the insurance company of French to cover the costs of her injuries and the damage to her vehicle.

Nicole Ferejohn v. Ryan A. Vaccari, et al.

In the case of Nicole Ferejohn v. Ryan A. Vaccari, et al., the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division decided in favor of the Plaintiff and ruled that the insurance company of the Defendant’s father would be responsible for paying the medical costs associated with the car accident in which Ryan Vaccari was involved.

On March 26, 1999, Raymond and Ryan Vaccari, father and son, purchased a 1967 Chevrolet Malibu that was in need of repairs. Raymond Vaccari gave his son, Ryan, the keys so that he could work on the car and bring it up to the required standard for operating on public streets and highways. Ryan was told, however, that he was not allowed to operate the vehicle until it was repaired and until he had a valid driver’s license.

On April 9, 1999, less than a month after the purchase of the vehicle, Ryan attended a party at which he consumed alcohol. Under the influence of alcohol, Ryan returned home, moved his mother’s car out of the way and drove with friends inside the car at a high rate of speed. He collided with a tree not far from his home and caused serious injuries to Nicole Ferejohn, the Plaintiff.

The court cited precedents in which individuals who were permissive users of a vehicle so that they could repair it were counted as permissive users when they drove the vehicle and were involved in car accidents. The court found that Ryan had express initial permission to use the Malibu and that the Defendant’s liability insurance would be required to cover the expenses associated with the Plaintiff’s injuries.

These precedents demonstrate the complexity of permissive user status as it relates to financial liability. At the Di Lauri & Hewitt Law Group, we offer outside general counsel, personal injury defense and insurance defense services designed to help businesses and insurers manage their litigatory liability more effectively. If you are looking for the right commercial litigation firm in Morristown, NJ, give us a call today at 973-354-5783. We look forward to the opportunity to serve you.

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