Tenn. Code Ann. §§55-10-311(a): What Does It Mean?

Pick up a complaint in any automobile wreck case where the defendant driver was not the owner of the vehicle operated at the time of the wreck and you will almost certainly see a reference to Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-311(a). This article will discuss the benefit of this statute and its limitations.

The portion of Section 311(a) that is used the most frequently[1] provides as follows:

In all actions for injury to persons and/or to property caused by the negligent operation or use of any automobile, auto truck, motorcycle, or other motor-propelled vehicle within this state, proof of ownership of the vehicle shall be prima facie evidence that the vehicle at the time of the cause of action sued on was being operated and used with authority, consent and knowledge of the owner in the very transaction out of which the injury or cause of action arose, and the proof of ownership likewise shall be prima facie evidence that the 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 course and scope of the servant’s employment. …

In summary, the statute provides that proof of ownership of the vehicle is prima facie evidence of (a) permissive use of the vehicle and (b) operation of the vehicle for the owner’s benefit. However, as the Tennessee Supreme Court has explained, “permissive use [of a vehicle], standing alone, establishes only a bailment. In and of itself it is not a basis for the imposition of personal liability upon the owner of a vehicle.”[2] The owner’s liability must still be established through the use of some other means for imposing liability, such as traditional agency, family purpose, or negligent entrustment.[3]

So what good is the statute? The statute allows a suit against the owner and permits discovery against the owner as a party to (a) rule out a non-permissive use argument by the owner’s liability insurance company; and (b) establish a foundation for liability against the owner under one of the established causes of action. In addition, under current law, the “prima facie evidence” language will usually defeat a motion for summary judgment filed by the owner of the vehicle when the only evidence in support of such a motion is filed by the owner alone.[4]

Therefore, practically speaking, a plaintiff hoping to obtain a judgment against the defendant-owner and not just the defendant-driver will need to gather additional evidence that will support imposition of liability under the law of agency, family purpose, or negligent entrustment. Discovery should explore these topics as appropriate.

If the evidence does not support a continued claim against the defendant-owner, plaintiff should dismiss the claim against the defendant-owner and proceed to trial against only the defendant-driver.[5] However, if the plaintiff has a claim under plaintiff’s uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance policy (UM/UIM) in the case, plaintiff should seek permission of counsel for the UM/UIM carrier lest plaintiff be accused of adversely impacting that carrier’s potential subrogation interest by dismissing the defendant-owner.[6]

If the claim against the defendant-owner is still present at trial, the case against defendant-owner may be tested by a directed verdict motion. The case against the defendant-owner will be for the jury unless the proof is so clear that reasonable minds could not differ “and there is no question about the credibility of witnesses.”[7]

Notes

  1. The balance of subsection (a) addresses liability of owners for vehicles being test-driven by others for the purpose of a prospective purchase. Subsection (b) , added in 2012, applies to car dealers who allow people to use a car while the driver’s car is being serviced, and provides a “safe harbor” for car dealers to avoid liability is such circumstances.
  2. Hamrick v. Spring City Motor Co., 708 S.W.2d 383, 385 (Tenn.1986).
  3. See, e.g., Strine v. Walton, 323 S.W.3d 480 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010) and Lindsey v. Baker,  2011 WL 6288034, * 6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 10, 2011).
  4. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 696 (Tenn.2002). It remains to be seen whether this result will be changed given Legislature’s attempt to change our summary judgment procedure with the passage of Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-16-101 (which purports to require the Tennessee courts to adopt the federal standard of judicial review of summary judgment motions).
  5. The dismissal of the claim against the defendant-owner will not affect the plaintiff’s access to the defendant-owner’s liability insurance policy on the vehicle so long as the vehicle was being used with the permission of the owner at the time of the incident giving rise to the claim.
  6. If the UM/UIM motorist carrier has to make a payment on the claim, the UM/UIM carrier will have a right of subrogation against the defendant-driver and, if a cause of action is present against the defendant-owner, the owner as well. Plaintiff has a duty not to impair these claims, and one could argue that this includes a duty not to dismiss a claim against a defendant-owner without the carrier’s permission.
  7. Hamrick v. Spring City Motor Co., 708 S.W.2d 383, 388 (Tenn. 1986).

John Day JOHN A. DAY, a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, lives in Brentwood. His blog on torts can be found at www.dayontorts.com.