LANSING, Mich. - A suburban Detroit dealership that leased a car to a customer while her own vehicle was being repaired isn't liable for a serious accident caused by her son, who was unlicensed, uninsured and drunk, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
The court said the dealership, as a short-term lessor, is not responsible for injuries to an innocent victim of the crash.
In 1996, Katherine Cooper leased a 1996 Chevrolet Beretta from Joe Lunghamer Chevrolet Inc. of Waterford while her car was being fixed there. The car was owned by General Motors Acceptance Corp. The lease provided that Cooper's immediate family members could drive if they were at least 25 and permanent residents of her home, but it prohibited the vehicle from being used 'in any illegal manner.'
Her 47-year-old son, Glen, apparently took the keys while she was asleep, took off in the car, ran a stoplight and smashed into another car, seriously injuring its passenger, Deborah DeHart. At the time, he was intoxicated, lacked insurance and had a revoked license, the court said.
Glen Cooper was convicted of felony drunken driving and sentenced to prison, according to DeHart's lawyer, James Craig of Southfield.
DeHart and her husband sued Lunghamer, but the case was dismissed without trial in Oakland County Circuit Court. Craig said Katherine Cooper could not be sued because she didn't own the car and didn't know her son had taken it.
The appeals court unanimously refused to reinstate the suit, saying Lunghamer is shielded from liability because the lease clearly bars use of the car for illegal purposes.
Even if Glen Cooper had had his mother's permission to drive the car, his illegal conduct violated the lease agreement, it said.
The state legislature intended to lessen the losses of short-term lessors - those for 30 days or less - 'when they had no control over the vehicle after it was leased,' the court said. 'Further, this conclusion supports the purpose of the owner's liability statute to put the risk of damage or injury not only on the owner but also on the person who is in immediate control. In this case, that person is lessee Katherine Cooper.'
The court said its decision supports a public policy of highway safety 'by attempting to keep vehicles out of the hands of drivers such as Glen Cooper.'
A lawyer for Lunghamer, Jeffrey Gerish, said, 'The court reached the right result.' He noted that the decision potentially has a significant impact because it's not unusual for dealers to provide short-term leases.
'The upshot is that where a person leasing a vehicle lets someone do something illegal, it will serve as a waiver of certain rights under the lease agreement,' Gerish said.
DeHart's lawyer, Craig, said there will be no further appeal.