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In DC, Am I Liable if Someone Borrows My Gar and Gets in an Accident?

By: Allan M. Siegel

Have you ever wondered if you can be held liable when your friend borrows your car and causes a car crash? In the District of Columbia, if you allow someone to use your vehicle, you may be held legally responsible for that person’s careless actions. The Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act (D.C. Code §50-1301.08) states that the driver of any vehicle operated in the District of Columbia, who has permission to drive the vehicle, will be deemed what the law calls the “agent” of the owner.

In other words, if a car is stolen, the owner will not be held liable if the thief causes a car accident. But, if you borrow your friend’s vehicle, your friend can be held responsible for your behavior on the streets of the District.

The MVSRA creates a rebuttable presumption that any operator of a vehicle has the permission of the vehicle’s owner and is accordingly the owner’s agent. Prior court decisions involving unusual circumstance have carved out a few exceptions to this general presumption, including:

  • Non-driving wife ruled not the owner of a car registered to her for financial convenience of her estranged husband, who actually caused the car crash. See Johnson v. Keyes, 201 A.2d 24 (D.C. 1964).
  • Negligent driver’s sister held not the "owner" of the vehicle under circumstances similar to those in Johnson v. Keyes. See Bush v. Johnson, 215 A.2d 850 (D.C. 1966).
  • When a minor son was involved in a car accident, his mother was held not to be the "owner" of the vehicle because she took title only to help him obtain financing. See Spindle v. Reid, 277 A.2d 117 (D.C. 1971).

A car owner was held not responsible when he surrendered control of his car to a person misrepresenting himself as parking lot attendant, who caused accident. See McClellan v. Allstate Insurance Co., 247 A.2d 58 (D.C. 1968).

Although situations like those listed above can alter the liability analysis, the general rule in Washington, D.C., stands that a car owner can be held responsible for damage caused by individuals who borrow the owner’s vehicle.