Peer-to-Peer Vehicle Sharing Raises Complex Car Accident Liability Issues
An interesting new service offered by FlightCar.com takes the peer-to-peer sharing economy to the next level. The company offers a service that permits people who are catching a plane at the airport to "rent" their vehicle to other driver's rather than pay exorbitant airport parking fees. Travelers drops their cars at the company facility near the airport and receive the car back washed and vacuumed. The company will later send a check to the individual who made their car available for rental customers.
While this concept is a clever way to turn the costly ordeal of airport parking into a revenue stream for travelers, the arrangement raises interesting issues in terms of liability. If the idea catches on, the number of vehicles driven by non-owners could rise significantly. When a driver is renting car from an agency that does not own the vehicle, the process of identifying the financially responsible parties can get complicated. Some of the questions that arise from this sort of arrangement include, but are not limited to:
- What efforts does the company take to ensure the car is well maintained and safe to drive?
- Does the company verify the renter has a driver's license and insurance?
- What efforts, if any, does the company undertake to confirm the driver does not have a history of traffic tickets and/or accidents?
- Will the company allow an uninsured driver to rent a car without requiring the purchase of short-term insurance?
While some of these questions and liability issues are relevant anytime someone rents a vehicle, this particular situation is unique because the company might have virtually no information regarding potential safety or maintenance issues related to vehicles rented to unsuspecting consumers. Admittedly, all rental car agencies have limited knowledge of a customer's driving history, but they own and service the vehicles. Further, Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, Dollar, Thrifty, Budget, Alamo, and other rental car agencies typically require customers to purchase short-term insurance unless the customer has his or her own insurance. If companies such as flightcar.com rent vehicles that belong to others, these safeguards might not exist.
The biggest issue raised by the prospect of peer-to-peer sharing of vehicles involves determining the liable parties following a crash. If a car driven by a customer of a peer-to-peer car rental agency is involved in a car accident claims, the responsible parties might include:
• The Rental Agency: If the agency elects to make vehicles available to the public for rent, the agency has a duty to exercise reasonable care in terms of confirming the driver is competent and the vehicle is safe. If the agency rents a vehicle to an individual with a suspended or revoked license or a horrific driving record, the agency should be liable for injuries or deaths caused by its patrons. Similarly, the agency could also be liable for providing to customers unsafe vehicles because of unaddressed recall issues or lack of maintenance. It is worth noting that currently there is no law that requires rental car agencies to correct safety recall issues or inform consumers of such problems before leasing out a vehicle.
• Vehicle Owner: Although the involvement of a third party car owner makes this type of arrangement unique, the owner would presumably have some obligation to provide a vehicle that is safe. If the owner knows the vehicle has not been serviced regularly and/or has a mechanical problem with its brakes or steering, he or she might be liable for an accident related to a mechanical malfunction. Whether the owner bears any liability if the agency rents the vehicle to an unsafe driver is a murky area. While owners of vehicles can be liable if they knowingly make their vehicle available to an incompetent driver, the situation is less clear if the owner has no input in the rental process.
• Drivers: As with other car accidents, any driver who violates a traffic safety law or otherwise drives in an unreasonably hazardous manner should be liable for harm caused in an accident. The agency that rented the vehicle also might be liable, at least partially, if a driver with a poor driving record causes a crash.
• Maintenance Service: If the rental company uses an independent rental company to maintain vehicle before making them available to consumers, the auto service business can be responsible for a crash caused by a vehicle malfunction.
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