• 13
  • December
    2010

The Tennessee Court of Appeals at Nashville made an interesting ruling last week in a personal injury case. In May 2007, a Murfreesboro woman, her granddaughter and a friend were innocently driving along when they were struck by a stolen 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis driven by the thief. Just before the accident at 4:53 p.m., the Murfreesboro Police had been pursuing the stolen car in a high-speed chase. The car accident left the three with serious injuries.

The Grand Marquis had been stolen sometime after 3:00 that day, when the owner's grandson left a spare set of keys in the car while visiting his mother's house. The car thief fled the scene and was never identified.

Was It Negligent to Leave Keys in Car in a Bad Neighborhood? Jury to Decide.

The injured woman and her granddaughter sued to recover compensation for their injuries. Named in the personal injury lawsuit were the unidentified driver of the stolen car, as well as the Murfreesboro Police Department and the City of Murfreesboro, under the theory that the police chase had been negligent.

They also sued the owner of the Grand Marquis and her grandson. The plaintiffs argued that the grandson should have foreseen that the car could be stolen, and his negligence set events in motion that led to their injuries. The owner of the car, the plaintiffs say, was negligent in entrusting her car to her irresponsible grandson.

The trial court had ruled before trial that the owner of the Grand Marquis, her grandson, the city and the police department could not be held liable for the car accident. It threw out the personal injury claims against those defendants, leaving the plaintiffs with only the unknown car thief to sue.

While agreeing that the city and police were not responsible, the Court of Appeals reinstated the claims against the car's owner and her grandson. The Court did not actually decide that they were responsible for the car accident. Instead, it held that the question of their liability was for a jury to decide.

Under Tennessee Law, an owner's liability after a car theft depends on the circumstances, such as whether keys were left in the car in plain sight, whether the car was unlocked, where the car was left, and how long it was between the car theft and any subsequent car wreck.

Several of those factors are in dispute in this case, including whether the grandson left the spare set of keys in plain sight, whether his mother's house was in a known high-crime area, and even whether the car was locked.

The answers to those questions should be decided by a jury, said the court. "Reasonable minds could differ as to the reasonableness of the car owner's actions and the foreseeability of the theft and the resulting harm," reads the opinion.

The Court of Appeals has sent the case back to the lower court for trial.

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