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Vicarious Liability in North Carolina

Can someone other than the driver of the car be held responsible for a car accident?  Yes, in North Carolina the doctrine of vicarious liability holds that the actions of a principal’s agent are treated the same as if the principal had acted.  However, for this to hold true, the agent must be in the process of acting for the principal at the time of the accident.  So, for example, if the driver is making a delivery for the principal at the time of the accident, he is in the process of acting for the principal.  But if in the process of making the delivery, he stopped and got some lunch and rear-ended someone in the parking lot of the lunch spot, he was not in the process of acting for the principal.

The agency relationship can be difficult for the injured party to prove since he would not have the knowledge necessary to establish this relationship.  In an effort to assist an injured party in establishing an agency relationship, North Carolina passed a statute provision under which the motor vehicle’s registration is prima facie evidence that the owner shown on that registration was the principal of the driver involved in an accident.  The entire statute provision is as follows:

§ 20-71.1. Registration evidence of ownership; ownership evidence of defendant's responsibility for conduct of operation.

(a) In all actions to recover damages for injury to the person or to property or for the death of a person, arising out of an accident or collision involving a motor vehicle, proof of ownership of such motor vehicle at the time of such accident or collision shall be prima facie evidence that said motor vehicle was being operated and used with the authority, consent, and knowledge of the owner in the very transaction out of which said injury or cause of action arose.

(b) Proof of the registration of a motor vehicle in the name of any person, firm, or corporation, shall for the purpose of any such action, be prima facie evidence of ownership and that such motor vehicle was then being operated by and under the control of a person for whose conduct the owner was legally responsible, for the owner's benefit, and within the course and scope of his employment.

In applying this statute, North Carolina courts have noted that it is important to understand that “the prima facie showing of agency under the statute only permits, and does not compel, a finding for plaintiff on the issue of agency.”  Even in the case where the plaintiff does not raise the issue of this statute, North Carolina courts have held that the judge has a duty to explain this statute because it is “the law arising from the evidence.”

The statue does not change the burden of proof of the issue of agency – it is still on the plaintiff.  The principal may offer contradictory evidence which shows that no agency relationship existed.   If the principal offers contradictory evidence, then the plaintiff must offer independent proof of an agency relationship.  Courts have held that the “defendant is entitled to a peremptory instruction when plaintiff relies solely on G.S. 20-71.1, and defendant offers uncontradicted evidence on the issue of agency tending to show that the driver was on a purely personal mission or errand at the time of the collision.”  However, the principal is not entitled to a peremptory instruction if he does not offer uncontradicted evidence.

It is especially important that a jury understand how to apply this statute so as not to give undue weight to the ownership of the vehicle.  Appropriate jury instructions for applying this statute are as follows:

Ownership of Vehicle as Prima Facie Evidence of Agency

G.S. 20-71.1(a).

Strong's: Automobiles §§ 103, 105

The motor vehicle law provides that proof of ownership of a motor vehicle at the time of an accident or collision is prima facie evidence that the vehicle was being operated and used with the authority, consent and knowledge of the owner in the very transaction out of which the injury or cause of action arose. In other words, proof of ownership of the vehicle is prima facie evidence that the driver was an agent of the owner.

The term "prima facie evidence" means evidence sufficient to carry the issue of agency to the jury and to justify, but not compel, a jury finding that there was an agency relationship between the driver and the owner.

The owner may offer evidence tending to show that, in fact, no agency existed. Whether or not he offers such evidence, he does not have the burden of proving the absence of agency. In this case the burden remains on the [plaintiff] [defendant] to prove, by the greater weight of the evidence, considering the prima facie evidence and all other evidence bearing on this issue, that (name driver), at the time of [the collision] [(describe other occurrence)], was the agent of (name [defendant] [plaintiff]), was engaged on the business of (name [defendant] [plaintiff]), and was acting within the course and scope of the agency relationship.

Registration as Prima Facie Evidence of Ownership and Agency

G.S. 20-71.1(b).

Strong's: Automobiles §§ 103, 105

The motor vehicle law provides that proof of the registration of a motor vehicle in the name of a [person] [firm] [corporation] at the time of an accident or collision is prima facie evidence of ownership and that the vehicle was then being operated by and under the control of a person for whose conduct the owner was legally responsible, that it was being operated for the owner's benefit, and that it was being operated within the course and scope of the driver's employment. In other words, proof of registration is prima facie evidence that the driver was an agent of the [person] [firm] [corporation] in whose name the vehicle was registered.

The term "prima facie evidence" means evidence sufficient to carry the issue of agency to the jury and to justify, but not compel, a jury finding that there was an agency relationship between the driver and such [person] [firm] [corporation].

That [person] [firm] [corporation] may offer evidence tending to show that, in fact, (he was not the owner and that) no agency existed. Whether or not he offers such evidence, he does not have the burden of proving the absence of (ownership or) agency. In this case the burden remains on the [plaintiff] [defendant] to prove, by the greater weight of the evidence, considering the prima facie evidence and all other evidence bearing on this issue, that (name driver), at the time of [the collision] [(describe other occurrence)], was the agent of (name [defendant] [plaintiff]), was engaged on the business of (name [defendant] [plaintiff]), and was acting within the course and scope of the agency relationship.

If you are in a car accident, it is important to have an attorney who understands all the relevant issues.  Contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC as soon as possible (704) 714-1450.

 

 

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