SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (FOX 2) – A 19-year-old who didn’t have a driver’s license and didn’t know how to operate a manual transmission is not responsible for the death of a 42-year-old mechanic who died after the teenager put a Jeep Wrangler in gear and it rolled into the man, killing him instantly .
Jeffrey Hawkins, a 42-year-old married father of four and a lifelong mechanic, died in March 2020 while working at Chrysler Jeep Dodge of Rochester Hills. The family has filed a civil lawsuit against the owner of the Jeep for $15 million in damages because, according to the law, that is the only course of action.
The unnamed Jeep owner could 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.
That means if you let your friend drive your car and they hit someone or something, and that victim sues, they would sue you and your insurance.
“We can’t (sue the dealer) because of a legal standard involved,” said attorney David Femminineo.
READ MORE: Why a Jeep owner is suing after dealership employee killed during oil change
The story has gained national attention as we investigate why the company is not being sued by the family. But it has also led to two questions:
- Why isn’t the teenager behind the wheel of the Jeep Wrangler charged?
- Why is the family not suing the 19-year-old?
FOX 2 reporter and attorney Charlie Langton said the 19-year-old cannot be held criminally responsible for a mistake.
“Generally, a criminal act requires some criminal intent. This is an accident — plain and simple,” Langton said.
The 19-year-old has not been identified because he is not suspected of any crime.
Under the law, the owner is vicariously liable for the negligent acts of the teenager because he was driving his vehicle with a license.
If the vehicle had been stolen, the deputy law is no longer in effect and the person driving your vehicle without
Why the teenager is not charged
Documents filed in Oakland County Circuit Court reveal more details about what happened that day.
On March 13, 2020, Hawkins left the home he shared with his wife and children. It was a little more than an hour later that his wife learned that he had been involved in an accident and had been hospitalized. He died just before nine o’clock in the morning.
According to court documents, the Jeep owner brought his Wrangler 4-door in for an oil change and tire rotation. The service was performed by a 19-year-old who had worked at the dealership for two months and performed the maintenance. The teenager completed the job and lowered the vehicle, putting all four wheels on the ground.
At this stage he then tried to start the Jeep to check for oil leaking around the filter. However, the Jeep had a manual transmission. The teenager was not sitting inside the Jeep but reached into the vehicle with his right foot and one hand. He pressed the brake with his right foot and his left foot was on the floor.
When he pressed the start button, nothing happened. Then he took his foot off the brake and pressed the clutch and pressed the start button. This time the jeep started.
The teenager was still outside the jeep and when he moved his right foot from the clutch the jeep lurched forward.
At that exact moment, Hawkins was standing in front of the Jeep and had bent down to retrieve something from a metal locker. A colleague said he was actually kneeling with his back to the Jeep where the teenager started the vehicle. As it hurled forward, it smashed Hawkins into the cupboard.
The teenager did not have a driver’s license and had never driven a manual transmission, according to his own admission in a court deposition. He admitted that he has never had a driver’s license, driven a vehicle with a manual transmission and clutch pedal, taken a driver’s education course, or taken a class to teach him how to drive a manual transmission.
Court documents state the 19-year-old assumed Hawkins had parked the Jeep in gear when he placed it over the lift. However, it is not known who parked the Jeep inside Hawkins bay that morning. The store manager said mechanics or porters will move vehicles but there was no information on who did it.
The second part is that it is common and recommended by experts to park a manual transmission car in either first gear or reverse to prevent it from rolling away but the operator, when starting the vehicle, should check the transmission first.
Langton said the teenager made a mistake but that doesn’t always mean there’s a crime. He said it was unlikely an arrest warrant would even be presented to prosecutors.
“Just because there’s a bad or tragic outcome, that doesn’t mean there’s a crime. Mistakes are made,” Langton said. “Even if you’re negligent, that doesn’t mean it’s a criminal act. If for some reason it was, a jury has to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the 19-year-old intended to kill him.”
The teenager was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which would have affected the charges and the civil suit.
Why the family does not sue the teenager
The civil action cannot be brought against the co-worker due to workers’ compensation. As we explored Thursday, the family’s only remedy is workers’ compensation, which prevents the co-worker and the company from being sued.
MORE: Car owner who left Jeep at dealer sued after worker dies during oil change
Under the law, Hawkins’ family’s only remedy is to file for workers’ compensation because he was injured and ultimately killed on the job. It prevents the family from being able to sue the manager or co-worker.
What can the Jeep owner do?
The Jeep’s owner filed a lawsuit against the dealership for indemnification, which would protect the owner from the lawsuit in the event that money is awarded to the Hawkins family.
In the separate lawsuit, a judge has ruled that the dealer must compensate the Jeep’s owner. The retailer will appeal the damages decision.
If the Michigan Court of Appeals rules that the original judge’s award of restitution was wrong, the Jeep owner would be responsible for the financial payout to the family if the judge rules in favor of the Hawkins family.
How much does the family match?
The suit, filed by attorney Femminineo, is for $15 million. The Jeep owner’s insurance company has already paid out $100,000. If all stands as they are now, with restitution in place and the jury awards the family the full amount, the dealership would be responsible for the remaining $14.9 million.
But there is another catch. Workers compensation also plays a part in this as they have already paid out some money to the family.
Workers’ compensation has a lien at the end of the lawsuit and regardless of the verdict, workers’ compensation would be owed the money that has already been paid out.
If the damages are overturned, the owner of the Jeep would be fully responsible for the money awarded to Hawkins’ family.
On Wednesday, FOX 2 reached out to the car owner’s attorney — but he had no comment on pending litigation, other than to say he will fight this case in a trial at the end of May.
“When you hand your car over to someone, including the valet or the person at the service desk at your local dealership, you better be able to trust that person,” the lawyer said.