Connecticut Rental Car Liability Survey and Commentary

JurisdictionConnecticut,United States
Publication year2021
CitationVol. 74 Pg. 313
Pages313
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 74.

74 CBJ 313. Connecticut Rental Car Liability Survey and Commentary




313


Connecticut Rental Car Liability Survey and Commentary

By CESAR A. NOBLE (fn*)

There exists under our common law no vicarious liability attendant to the mere ownership of a motor vehicle involved in an accident. (fn1) Absent indicia of an employer/employee, (fn2) familial (fn3)or agency relationship, (fn4) the owner of a motor vehicle is not liable for the tortious conduct of the operator of the vehicle. On any given day a Connecticut car operator can expect to encounter one of the thousands of rental cars being driven on our roads and highways. What if, per chance, the operator of that rental car is negligent or reckless and that conduct is a proximate cause of an injury? Section 14-154a of the Connecticut General Statutes affords the injured party a unique vehicle for the recovery of damages against the owner of the rental car. This article examines the breadth, limitations and peculiarities of this right of recovery.

I. THE STATUTE

The rental car statute, section 14-154a, the antecedents of which date back to 1797, (fn5) provides that:

Any person renting or leasing to another any motor vehicle owned by him shall be liable for any damage to any person or property caused by the operation of such motor vehicle while so rented or leased, to the same extent as the operator would have been liable if he had also been the owner.

An early explanation of the liability imposed by the statute




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was delivered by the Supreme Court in Marshall v. Fenton. (fn6) The statute

cannot be regarded otherwise than an expression of legislative judgment as to the extent - beyond the limitations of the general principles of respondent superior and the "family car doctrine" - to which the owner of a motor vehicle which he intrusts to another should be held liable for the acts of the latter. (fn7)

While instructive in excluding those principles that are not to be considered in enforcing lessor liability under the statute, this explanation did not define the parameters of the statutory liability. Subsequent cases contained the ambiguous comment that the statute imposed "liability akin in its nature to that of a principal for the acts of his agent." (fn8)

The roots of the expansive interpretation of the breadth of the vicarious liability ultimately imposed under the statute were laid in Graham v. Wilkins, (fn9) a decision which addressed the evidentiary issue of whether a guilty plea of an operator would operate as an admission of the owner-lessor. The Supreme Court recognized that such admissions ordinarily would not be binding on the owner of the vehicle if the operator were merely operating the vehicle in the course and scope of an authority to do so. (fn10) Moreover, because no agency relationship existed between the operator and lessor of the motor vehicle, the admission could not bind the lessor under a theory of agency. (fn11)

Section 14-154a, however, provided the requisite nexus to bind the lessor with the lessee's admission. Given that " [t] he basic objective of the automobile rental statute is to make the owner as liable as the operator for damages caused by the operation of a car ... [by] virtue of the express terms of the statute the owner-lessor is made the alter ego of the operator so that the latter's acts with respect to the operation of the car, including any admissions concerning that operation, are in




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law the acts of the owner-lessor." (fn12) The lessor's liability under 14-154a for the tortious conduct of its lessee in the operation of the rented vehicle is thus identical to that of the lessee.

It was left to the Supreme Court's decision in Gionhiddo v. Avis Rent A Car System, Inc. (fn13) to emphasize the totality of the lessor's assumption of responsibility under section 14-154a for its lessee's misconduct. The lessor appealed a decision obliging it to answer for an award of treble damages pursuant to section 14-295 of the General Statutes (fn14) as a consequence of its liability under section 14-154a. The enhanced damages were imposed because of the lessee's operation of the rental car while intoxicated, in a heinous, wilful and reckless manner, so as to strike head-on a car driven by the plaintiff's decedent. (fn15) The Supreme Court rejected arguments by the rental company that the statute's interpretation should conform to the principles found in common law or the Restatement (Second) of Torts limiting vicarious liability for punitive or exemplary damages and to decisions in other jurisdictions interpreting similar statutes. Neither, the court held, was persuasive due to the statutory imposition of alter ego status on the lessor vis-a-vis the lessee, which made the lessor "equally with the driver 'the author of the injury,' and impose[s] upon the owner 'equal responsibility . . . for all resulting damage.' " (fn16) Given the unique imposition of a vicarious liability significantly greater than at common law or under similar statutes in other jurisdictions, the court upheld the award of the treble damages. (fn17)

The liability of the lessor/rental company is thus identical to that of the lessee. Moreover, the statute affords an injured




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party a cause of action against an owner independent of any action against the operator/lessee after the expiration of the statute of limitations has expired and still possess a cause of action against the lessor. (fn18) The failure of a plaintiff to substitute the executor or administrator for a deceased renter pursuant to section 52-599 (b) of the General Statutues does not extinguish the plaintiff's right against the lessor. (fn19)

Query whether a release of the lessee/operator serves to extinguish liability against the lessor. It would appear so. The right to maintain an independent action against the lessor does not create independent liabilities. (fn20) The owner/lessor may interpose the same defenses to liability as those possessed by its alter ego. (fn21). A release of the operator should certainly be no less a bar to liability than the comparative negligence of the injured party. (fn22)

Any interpretation of section 14-154a begins with the proposition that it clearly establishes liability to a significantly greater extent than vicarious liability at common law. (fn23) It is axiomatic that statutes in derogation of common law are to be strictly construed so that a legislative intent that is not clearly express is given no effect. (fn24) A statute which creates a liability where formerly none existed should receive a strict construction and is not to be extended, modified, or enlarged in its scope. (fn25)




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II. LIMITATIONS OF STATUTORY LIABILITY

A. Pedevillano v. Bryon

The Supreme Court's decision in Pedevillano v. Bryon (fn26) recognized limits to the statutory liability under 14-154a where its holding in Gionfriddo v. Avis Rent A Car Systems, Inc. had appeared to eschew any whatsoever. (fn27) The plaintiff brought an action for personal injuries against the lessor for the tortious conduct of a nonlessee/operator who was not authorized to drive the rental vehicle under the terms of the rental contract. (fn28) The Supreme Court declined to accept the proposition that the lessee's scope of authority and the lessor's statutory liability are determined by the statute without regard to the terms of the lease agreement pursuant to which the voluntary entrusting of the rental vehicle occurred (fn29) and rejected plaintiff's argument the statute ought to be liberally construed in light of its remedial purposes. (fn30) The Court emphasized its prior dicta in multiple cases. (fn31) that the liability imposed by the statute was the same as the operator provided the vehicle was operated by one "... in lawful possession of it pursuant to the terms of the contract of rental." (fn32) In foregoing a literal interpretation of the statute, the Cort held that " [t]he statute does not, in its terms, preclude a lessor from imposing reasonable restrictions on the identity of those to whom it is willing to entrust its property and for whose conduct it is willing to assume risk." (fn33) The decision emphasized that "the lessor's right to limit the identity of authorized drivers does not in light of the purpose of section 14-154a, relieve the lessor of liability to third parties for misconduct by such authorized driv




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ers, even when such misconduct violates express contractual restrictions on the use of the vehicle." (fn34)

Almost immediately the language permitting the imposition of "reasonable" restrictions came under scrutiny. Three superior court decisionS35 denied lessor motions for summary judgments which were predicated on the unauthorized use of the rental vehicles on the basis that the emergency use of the vehicle created an exception to the lessor's right to restrict the identity of the drivers. These decisions recognized that special consideration has been given to persons acting in emergency situations under other circumstanCeS16 and found the existence of a question of material fact as to whether a lease restriction was unreasonable if interpreted to prohibit authorization for persons driving under emergency circumstances.

Subsequent decisions revealed a reluctance to follow this early trend. The Camacho v. Gonzalez (fn37) court found offensive the need to remake the clear terms of the rental contract that the creation of an emergency exception would require. judge Levin, in two decisions, stressed the principle that parties are free to contract for whatever terms they may agree on and that courts should enforce contracts voluntarily and fairly made between parties unless the contract is voidable on grounds such as mistake, fraud or unconscionability. (fn38) judge Levin distinguished the special...

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