A suburban New York City dealership that didn't file a customer's temporary registration documents with the state Department of Motor Vehicles before a fatal crash cannot be held liable as an owner to a passenger's estate.
The failure to submit the documents by the five-day deadline did not create what the appellate division of the state Supreme Court called "ownership by estoppel," meaning ownership by force of law.
The ruling blocks Thaddeus Boyce's estate from collecting damages from Competition BMW in Smithtown, N.Y., which sold driver Melissa Rifenburg a used BMW 318ti on Jan. 16, 2001. The crash happened the next day.
"It's huge for auto dealerships, probably one of the biggest decisions I've seen in a long time," said dealership lawyer Aidan McCormack of New York City.
"Most dealerships (in New York) don't comply with this five-day requirement" because they batch-file registrations without objection from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Boyce estate lawyer Peter Graham of Kingston, N.Y., called the decision inconsistent with other rulings and said there will be a further appeal.
Boyce was seriously injured in a one-car crash the day after Rifenburg, who admitted speeding and driving drunk, bought the car. He died after six months of hospitalization, and Rifenburg pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide, Graham said. Her insurer settled for the policy limit, which was the minimum required in New York.
State law requires dealerships to forward temporary registration paperwork to the Department of Motor Vehicles within five days. Boyce's estate argued that Competition should be treated as an owner of the car because it hadn't met that deadline.
But McCormack said that virtually all dealerships would be "on the hook for every penny" if they automatically were treated as owners for missing the deadline.
The appeals panel sided with the dealership by a 2-1 vote.
Although Competition failed to meet the deadline, the court found no indication that Rifenburg's temporary registration was issued improperly and said she had obtained insurance and was listed as the owner on the temporary registration and police report. It also noted that the crash happened before the five-day period elapsed.
Dissenting Justice Karen Peters said it was undisputed that Competition failed to submit the documents on time as the law requires.
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