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DeLauter v. Seneca Ins. Co., Inc. – Vicarious Liability for DUI-Related Injuries

Connecticut auto accident attorneyAny car accident has the potential to result in severe injuries. Those caused by the negligence of a drunk driver, however, tend to be worse, by virtue of the fact impaired drivers often fail to take evasive action and have a delayed response time.

In these instances, our experienced Boston injury lawyers recognize thorough investigation is necessary to determine all potentially liable parties.

Generally in negligence law, third parties (aside from insurance companies) aren't responsible for the wrongdoing of someone else. Of course, there are exceptions.

For example, the owner of a vehicle may be held liable for the negligent actions of a permissive driver under the theory of negligent entrustment. That is, the owner entrusted a person with a dangerous instrument (i.e., a motor vehicle) with actual or constructive knowledge the other person was likely to use it in an unreasonably risky manner. Another example would be vicarious liability of an employer, if the at-fault driver is operating a work vehicle or driving for work at the time of a crash.

Then there is Massachusetts' "Dram Shop Law," codified in Gen. Laws, Part 1, Title XX, Chapter 138, Section 69. This law disallows sale or distribution of alcohol to intoxicated persons.

Some courts have expanded these theories a bit further. One recent example is the Wyoming Supreme Court's decision in DeLauter v. Seneca Ins. Co., Inc., where a severely injured pedestrian, struck by a drunk driver, filed a lawsuit against the bail bondsman (and its insurance company) for negligently releasing the intoxicated man from custody to go to a bar after he was just arrested for DUI.

Although this is an out-of-state case, it holds relevance for motor vehicle crash victims in Massachusetts with regard to the discussion on third-party liability.

The crash in question occurred on Dec. 29, 2007, when a man was arrested for DUI. He was taken to jail, where a test indicated he had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.11 percent. He was released around 1 a.m. after a surety bond was posted by a local bail bondsman. As a condition of release, the sheriff's office required the bondsman to sign a "hold harmless" agreement, meaning it shifted the burden of liability for any actions of the impaired person onto the bondsman.

The bondsman then drove the man to the bond office, located on the same street as the bar where he'd spent time earlier in the evening. The man told the bondsman he would walk to the bar and catch a ride with friends who had remained there. Instead, he had another drink and then agreed to drive a friend home in her vehicle. As he exited the parking lot, he struck a pedestrian, pinning him underneath. He then dragged her about a mile before stopping, resulting in serious injuries to the pedestrian.

The pedestrian later filed a lawsuit against the bail bonds company, arguing it had been negligent to accept custody of the impaired man and then release him under circumstances likely to cause injury to others.

Initially, the defendant argued it owed no duty to pedestrian. However, this was countered by the plaintiff asserting the defendant accepted liability when it agreed to assume custody of the impaired man.

The defendant then asserted the complaint was time-barred because it was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations for "professional malpractice." Unlike general injury cases, which in that state have a four-year statute of limitations, professional malpractice cases (typically reserved for medical negligence) must be filed in half that time.

The trial court initially granted defense motion for summary judgment on these grounds, finding the defendant was acting in the scope of his work when he assumed custody and then released the man (therefore releasing defendant of further liability). However, the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed, holding that the defendants failed to prove the defendant was rendering licensed and professional services when he released the impaired man to walk to a nearby bar.

Specifically, the court noted in taking custody, responsibility and control of an impaired man, the bondsman agreed to perform a duty previously owed by the sheriff's office, which was to protect the public - including the plaintiff - from harm caused by intoxicated persons likely to drive impaired and cause serious injury or death to others. Further, the court ruled evidence supported bondsman's failure to use reasonable care in allowing the impaired man to return to a bar where he'd been drinking prior to his DUI arrest.

The court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

The bottom line is there may be more than one possibility for recovery of damages in a DUI crash case. It's imperative to consult immediately with an experienced attorney to timely explore all options.

If you were injured or a loved one was injured or died in an accident, contact the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone. We provide aggressive representation for people injured in Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and communities throughout Massachusetts. Call 1-800-WIN-WIN-1 for a free consultation. Pay nothing unless you win.


Atty. Mark Bixby is a personal injury lawyer at the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone, serving Springfield and throughout Massachusetts. If you or a loved one has been injured, contact our law firm today.

Atty. Mark Bixby