§33.2 Imputation of Fault from Vehicle Driver to Vehicle Passenger

The Case: Cole v. Woods¸ 548 S.W.2d 640 (Tenn. 1977).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff died in a car wreck. She was a passenger in a car driven by her fiancé. Their car was struck by a vehicle driven by defendant Woods. Woods claimed that Plaintiff's fiancé was negligent and that his negligence should be imputed to plaintiff.

The Bottom Line:

  • "We granted certiorari in this wrongful death action primarily in order to reexamine the rule of law requiring that in a suit against a third party tortfeasor, the negligence of a non-owner driver must be imputed to a non-negligent owner passenger." 548 S.W.2d at 641.
  • "We have considered and analyzed this matter in the light of the indisputable fact that the laws of every land from time eternal have contained a system of tort law, in one form or another, that recognized the right of the innocent victims of wrongful conduct to recompense at the hands of the wrongdoer. The doctrine of imputed contributory negligence, founded in fallacy and existing without justification, is an impediment to that right and a stumbling block in the path of justice." Id. at 650.
  • "The question of a passenger's right to recover should depend solely upon the presence or absence of his own personal contributory negligence." Id.
  • "We do not believe that, absent a showing of a master-servant relationship or of a joint enterprise, the status of the passenger or his relationship with the driver of an automobile is of any consequence, except to the limited extent that it may be a circumstance to consider in determining the personal contributory negligence of the passenger. We hold that henceforth, in automobile cases, only a master-servant relationship or a finding of joint enterprise will justify an imputation of contributory negligence. In all other automobile cases, the doctrine of imputed contributory negligence has no current validity. All cases contra are overruled." Id. (footnote omitted).
  • "We reiterate our view that, in a substantial number of imputed negligence cases appearing in our reported decisions, our courts have characterized as imputed contributory negligence that which actually constituted direct, proximate and personal negligence on the part of the passenger." Id.
  • "This ruling does not leave the third party tortfeasor standing naked and defenseless. The passenger must exercise reasonable care for his own safety. For instance, he must warn the driver of dangers unknown to the driver, must protest excessive speed, must not ride with a drunken driver or one who is reckless or incompetent, and must not entrust his automobile to a driver who is, or becomes, incompetent for any reason. In short, the duties now imposed upon 'guest passengers' under the decisional law of the state continue in full force and effect. It is entirely possible that the jury might find such direct, personal and proximate contributory negligence in this case." Id.
  • "The doctrine of imputed contributory negligence, however, henceforth will not be charged in any suit or action in which recovery is sought by an automobile passenger, and in which there has not been a finding of a master-servant relationship or of a joint enterprise." Id.
  • "We are not unmindful of Sec. 59-1037, T.C.A. providing that proof of ownership is 'prima facie evidence that said vehicle ... was being operated and used with authority, consent and knowledge of the owner ... and that said vehicle was then and there being operated by the owner, or by the owner's servant, for the owner's use and benefit and within the scope and course of his employment.' Nor are we unmindful of Sec. 59-1037, T.C.A. relating to proof of registration." Id. at 651.
  • "These statutes are unaffected. This ruling does not trench upon them nor do they operate to dilute the ruling. The rules of respondeat superior are unaffected. In an action by a third party brought against a master, his vicarious liability is unaffected, and the negligence of his servant is chargeable to him and he is answerable therefore. We confine this ruling to automobile negligence cases. It is possible that other situations may arise where the same result would follow; however, we leave those decisions for the future." Id.

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.dayontortsbook.com. John also blogs regularly on key issues for tort lawyers. To subscribe to the Day on Torts blog, visit www.dayontorts.com.

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