SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (FOX 2) – When a man took his Jeep to the Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge on March 13, 2020, it was for a routine oil change. But one employee died after another employee – who could not drive a switch – sat behind the wheel to move the jeep and hit and killed the first employee.
Two years later, a lawyer does not sue the man who died the other worker or dealer; he sues the man who owned the jeep. The man waiting in a lobby. The man who was just there for a routine oil change. It turns out that this is the law and this story is about to get complicated.
The employee, Jeffrey Hawkins, was a married 42-year-old, father of four and a lifelong mechanic. He was working on the Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge and was killed that March day by another employee who was driving the jeep.
“He started the engine, removed the clutch and then a terrible thing happened – the car ate lunch and killed my client,” said lawyer David Femminineo.
MORE: Why teenager who disconnected the clutch was not prosecuted or sued after Jeep crushed mechanics
The unnamed Jeep owner can be held liable for millions of dollars in damages because, under Michigan law, if someone is injured or killed and a vehicle is involved, the owner of the car is liable.
This means that if you let your friend drive your car and they hit someone or something, and that victim is right, they would sue you and your insurance.
Why is the owner responsible?
“We can not (sue the dealer) because of a legal standard involved,” said attorney David Femminineo.
So what is this legal standard? There are several factors that come into play here and we will try to explain them as well as possible.
In Michigan, an injured colleague cannot sue the boss because of the boss’s negligence. According to FOX 2’s Charlie Langton, the boss in this case is negligent because they hired someone who did not know how to drive a stick and did not even have a driver’s license.
So even if the boss was negligent in hiring someone who should not have driven, the victim’s family cannot hold the boss responsible.
Instead, the cure for the victim’s family is to seek workers’ compensation, which they have.
Under work compensation, Hawkin’s family will receive salary and medical care based on his relatives and how much he earned at the time of his death.
However, there are several wrinkles here. Because Hawkins’ death involved a car, there is a charter known as the owner’s liability statute which means that the owner of the car is legally responsible.
If the owner has given permission to the driver to drive the car, the owner is negligent. When the jeep driver handed over his keys to the employee who was driving, he gave permission to the employee to drive the car. This makes the owner legally responsible and is automatically responsible for the driver’s negligence.
According to Langton, it would be the same if you took your car to a restaurant with a valet and you handed over the keys. According to state law, if the valet driver injures someone with your car, you are responsible.
The law is called deputy responsibility and means that the owner is automatically responsible for the driver’s negligence.
By law, the Hawkins family’s only remedy is to seek compensation from the employee because he was injured and eventually killed at work. It prevents the family from being able to sue the boss – even though the boss is clearly negligent, says Langton.
“The car owner is always responsible for the driver’s negligence, even if the owner does not know the driver,” Langton said.
What can the Jeep owner do?
Separate from the trial of the Hawkins family, the owner of the jeep also has some options. He can and has sued the dealer for compensation.
Compensation means that, if the judge rules against the car owner, the dealer would pay the remainder.
In the separate trial, a judge has ruled that the dealer must provide compensation to the jeep’s owner. But even that is tricky.
Now that the dealer has been ordered to pay damages, the dealer’s lawyer represents the Jeep owner in the lawsuit.
The dealer will appeal the decision on damages.
If the Michigan Court of Appeals finds that the original judge’s decision on compensation was incorrect, the Jeep owner would be liable for the financial payment to the family if the judge rules in favor of the Hawkins family.
How much is the family right?
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Femminineo, is worth $ 15 million. The Jeep owner’s insurance company has already paid out $ 100,000. If everything is as it is now, with compensation in place and the jury allocates the entire sum to the family, the dealer would be responsible for the remaining 14.9 million.
But there is another catch. Workers’ compensation also has a part in this because they have already paid out some money to the family.
Employee compensation has a lien at the end of the trial and regardless of the judgment, the work injury compensation would be owed to the money that has already been paid.
If the damages were canceled, the owner of the jeep would be fully responsible for the money allocated to Hawkins’ family.
On Wednesday, FOX 2 contacted the car owner’s lawyer – but he had no comments on ongoing litigation, other than to say that he will fight this case in a trial at the end of May.
“When you hand over your car to someone, including the clerk or the person at your local dealer’s service desk, it’s better that you can trust that person,” the lawyer said.