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Suing Multiple Defendants

A florist delivery van driver is texting his boss while driving. He rear-ends a car stopped at a traffic light, injuring the car’s driver and damaging the vehicle.

A 17-year-old drives her parents’ car through a stop sign at an intersection. She collides broadside with a motorcycle, severely injuring the rider.

In both scenarios, the injured parties will seek compensation for their injuries from the obvious offending operators: the distracted van driver and the inexperienced teen, respectively. An experienced personal injury attorney, however, recognizes that each of the hypothetical motor vehicle accidents likely would involve multiple defendants. Specifically, if the first accident occurred in the course of the van operator delivering bouquets, the florist employing him faces liability. In the second scenario, the parents who inflicted their careless child on the roadways face exposure for damages too.

The parents whose child ran the stop sign may be liable defendants under the legal theory of negligent entrustment. To sustain such a claim, the injured plaintiff would have to show that the defendant:

  1. Entrusted a vehicle to an incompetent or unfit person whose incompetence or unfitness caused the plaintiff harm;

  2. the vehicle’s owner/controller gave specific or general permission to the offending operator to drive the vehicle; and

  3. the defendant knew the operator was incompetent or unfit to drive the vehicle.

Simply put: this tort applies to someone who provides a motor vehicle to another person. The owner of the vehicle knows or has reason to know that because of youth, inexperience or otherwise, the driver would use it in a way that would create unreasonable risk of physical injury. That risk may apply to the driver, and to others whom the owner should expect to be endangered by the driver’s use of the vehicle. Under these circumstances, the owner faces liability for resulting physical harm. For liability to attach to the entruster, proof is needed that the owner knew or should have known the driver was unfit or incompetent to drive the vehicle safely. Moreover, it must be proven that the driver’s incompetence or unfitness legally caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

The legal doctrine of respondeat superior addresses a master/servant relationship. Here, an employer, acting through an employee, is held responsible for the employee’s tortious conduct that occurs in the course of the agency relationship. In the earlier example, the florist is vicariously liable for the negligent driving of the delivery van operator that ended in a collision while the van driver was delivering flowers. Personal injury lawyers face a tougher challenge imposing vicarious liability if the agent was not engaged in the work activity. Say, for example, that instead of delivering flowers the driver made a stop to drink at the local pub on the company clock unbeknownst to the florist—liability is tougher to establish.

Massachusetts is a pure joint and several liability state, which doesn’t bode well for multiple defendants. What that means is that each defendant found atfault to any degree in an accident is liable for the entire amount of damages owed to the prevailing injured plaintiff. By holding each joint tortfeasor responsible for 100 percent of the damages awarded the plaintiff, joint and several liability attempts to avoid a situation in which an injured party is denied recovery because one of the wrongdoers is insolvent. Of course, this is provided that negligent conduct of the plaintiff, if any, does not exceed 50 percent.

Regarding joint tortfeasors, it is up to the plaintiff to decide whether to join the multiple defendants in one suit, sue each alleged wrongdoer separately or elect to pursue claims against some, but not all, of the potential defendants. If, however, a plaintiff who suffers harm because of the negligence of two defendants agrees not to sue one in return for consideration, any amount the plaintiff receives to forgo a claim against the one tortfeasor may reduce the ultimate liability of the remaining defendant.

Whom to pursue recovery from for personal injuries is a strategic decision best made by consulting with an experienced personal injury attorney. If you have any questions about motor vehicle accidents, personal injury law or tort law, contact our offices. Call 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online for a free consultation.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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