Owner Liability Under Michigan Law:

By: Charissa C. Huang

A reoccurring question we receive from our clients is whether they can be sued if they allow a family member or friend to borrow their car and the family member or friend gets into an accident. People are sometimes surprised to learn that the answer to that question is yes – even if you were not a passenger at the time of the accident, and even if you did nothing but allow a family member or friend to borrow your car, you still may be liable for damages under Michigan law.

Under the Civil Liability Act, MCL 257.401 et seq., also known as the owner liability act, the owner of a motor vehicle is liable for any injuries caused by the negligent operation of that motor vehicle by any person driving the vehicle with the owner’s expressed or implied consent or knowledge. A person who is injured as a result of negligent operation of a vehicle need only prove that you were the owner and that you knew or consented to the driver operating the vehicle in order to subject you to liability under this statute.

In addition, if the vehicle was driven by an immediate family member such as a parent, sibling or child of the owner at the time of injury, the statute presumes that the owner knew that his or her family member was operating the vehicle. There is also a Michigan common law presumption of consent that arises even if the operator of a motor vehicle is not a member of the owner’s family. While these presumptions are rebuttable, the evidence that the owner did not consent to the use of his or her vehicle must be positive, unequivocal, strong and credible in order to shield the owner from liability. The public policy underlying the Michigan owner liability law is to ensure the financial responsibility for those injured as a result of the negligent operation of motor vehicles. As such, the statute places the risk of damage or injury on the person who has the ultimate control of the motor vehicle in addition to the person who is in immediate control at the time of the accident.

A person is considered an “owner” of a motor vehicle under the statute if any of the following applies:

  • The person rents a motor vehicle or has exclusive use of the motor vehicle under a lease or otherwise for more than 30 days.
  • The person holds legal title to a motor vehicle.
  • A person has the immediate right of possession under an installment sales contract.

Furthermore, the Michigan Supreme Court has held that a person is an “owner” of a vehicle where it is shown that he or she had intended to use it for more than 30 days, even though it was in the person’s possession, for example, only five days before the accident.

The statute also imposes strict liability on the owner of the vehicle, even under circumstances that may seem harsh to the average car owner. For example, Michigan courts have held that a parent and owner of a vehicle is liable when the plaintiff bringing the suit was injured as a result of the parent’s minor teenager losing control of the vehicle while driving intoxicated, even though it was the plaintiff who purchased alcohol for the teenager. In addition, under Michigan law where an owner consents to the use of his or her vehicle by another person for a limited purpose or with other restrictions, the owner is still liable if the other person uses the vehicle for any purpose – even where the owner has expressly forbidden the use of the vehicle for the specific purpose used at the time of the accident.

As such, before you allow a family member or friend to borrow your car, be sure to consider these factors. If you have questions about owner liability under Michigan law, or would like more information, contact one of our attorneys today.