An “automobile guest statute” is a law that prohibits car passengers from suing the driver for injuries suffered in an accident. Guest statutes were state laws that restricted liability in car accidents and were widely adopted during the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, “guests,” or non-paying passengers, such as friends or neighbors who sued drivers after being injured, had fewer legal rights.

In general, they prohibited guests from suing drivers or owners except in extreme cases of negligence. When a driver fails to pay attention and crashes a car, even momentarily, most states would not allow a lawsuit. Guest statutes largely protected insurance companies and drivers while leaving injured passengers out of luck.

The laws were challenged frequently in state and federal courts throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Still, courts didn’t begin narrowing and ultimately striking down the statutes until the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1917, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that “unpaid drivers, analogized to gratuity bailees, should not be held liable for automobile accidents unless gross negligence was shown.” Since then, almost 30 states have enacted laws similar to this. Several court cases upheld the constitutionality of Nebraska’s guest statute in 2010. Oregon has a guest statute that applies to non-paying passengers in aircraft or watercraft and limits claims for injury, death, or loss unless the accident was caused intentionally or by gross negligence or intoxication on the part of the owner or operator.

Only “non-paying” passengers are subject to these statutes. Taxis, buses, and other public transportation do not fall under the guest statutes that apply to automobiles. Guest statutes are designed to make it more difficult for passengers in automobiles to recover damages from the driver resulting from ordinary negligence.

Guest statutes have caused considerable controversy over the years. When they were defended, it was to argue that they were needed to prevent drivers and passengers from colluding to bring fraudulent claims against insurers. Some critics argued that guest statutes unfairly protected drivers and insurance companies while leaving injured passengers and the survivors of dead passengers without compensation. It seemed arbitrary to distinguish between paying and non-paying passengers.

How can friends given a ride in a car be unable to recover damages when, for example, commuters on a bus are able to do so? Many states provided greater legal protection to cattle being transported to market than a guest in a vehicle. However, such arguments went unanswered for many years.

Do Guests in Automobile Accidents Have Any Right to Recovery?

Guests in car accidents are usually barred from suing the driver for ordinary negligence. Nevertheless, a guest may sue the driver if the driver’s conduct was reckless, malicious, and intentional.

A guest may sue a driver for intentional and reckless conduct if the driver is drunk or recklessly drives, causing an accident that injures the guest.

Does Every State Have Automobile Guest Statutes?

Only a few states have these statutes. For states with automobile guest statutes, the driver must have operated the vehicle in a grossly negligent or reckless manner in order to be held liable. Most states hold a driver responsible if they operate the vehicle in an ordinarily negligent manner.

Generally, the social passenger can sue the driver only if the driver’s acts are grossly negligent or extreme. Driving while intoxicated, playing “chicken,” driving a car with faulty brakes, or driving recklessly after the passenger asked the driver to stop or asked to be let out are examples of negligent driving.

What Should I Do If I Was Injured as a Passenger in a Vehicle?

In case of an automobile accident, you should still take the following steps regardless of whether your state has an automobile guest statute:

  • Obtain a police report
  • Gather the personal information of those involved – insurance policy numbers, addresses, phone numbers, etc.
  • Prepare your account of the situation

Can My Actions as a Passenger Affect What I Can Recover from the Accident?

When you are partially responsible for your injuries, some states limit or prohibit recovery. In California, for example, if you were not wearing your seatbelt in an accident, you couldn’t recover much. Additionally, being partially responsible for the accident (e.g., distracting the driver) can severely limit your recovery.

The Duty to Inspect the Vehicle

Wisconsin decided the classic case of O’Shea v. Lavoy in 1921, establishing the principle that an automobile host can be held to a standard of reasonable care for active negligence when actually driving the car, but they do not have to furnish a safe vehicle or inspect it. It was decided on the basis that any other conclusion would discourage motorists from sharing rides with friends at a time (1921) when cars were few in number. A number of jurisdictions have followed this lead. In 1962, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled O’Shea in McConville v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., which recognized a substantial shift in public policy.

During the early twenties, there were few cars. Today, there are millions. Much of the population was rural. Today, it consists of more urban areas. The roads at that time were few. Today, autos are fast and often quite dangerous; there were fewer fatal accidents and severe injuries in the twenties, and today, there are tens of thousands of traffic fatalities per year. The court’s most compelling argument for a change in policy is its observation that there is a widespread use of automobile liability insurance today. In the early days of automobiles, it was considered anti-social to ask a host to be responsible for the injuries a gratuitous passenger might suffer.

Many states today require proof of financial stability, usually in the form of insurance coverage or ownership of property of a certain value. Failure to meet these requirements can result in the loss of driving privileges. Public policy has changed and now disfavors anyone who does not or cannot assume the financial obligations inherent in operating a motor vehicle.

Are There Any Defenses to Negligence?

A negligence claim can be defended in a variety of ways. The most obvious way to contest negligence is to dispute any of its components (namely duty, breach, causation, or damages).

Comparative and Contributory Negligence

Two related defenses are contributory and comparative negligence. Depending on the state law, one or the other may apply, but the general concept is the same. Both defenses ask whether the injured person is responsible in some way for their injury.

Any negligence on the part of the injured person is totally barred from recovery (which means they get nothing). An injured person can still recover under a comparative negligence jurisdiction, but their recovery is reduced by how negligent they were.

Should I Get a Lawyer?

As a result of the first guest statute enacted in 1927, the acts continue to pose a difficulty in judicial interpretation. As a result, some courts have altered the substantive law to soften its impact.

Suppose you suffered an injury as a result of an auto accident. In that case, you should contact an experienced car accident attorney to learn more about your rights, defenses, and the complicated legal system. Auto accident injuries can be devastating; a personal injury lawyer can help you seek compensation.