Hall and Clarke Obtain Pre-Answer Dismissal of Vicarious Liability Claim

Posted on: January 4th, 2021

Andrew Hall and Tansha Clarke obtained a Pre-Answer dismissal for their client, a rental car company sued for vicarious liability. The case arose from a tragic motor vehicle accident involving a rental vehicle that hit the plaintiffs’ vehicle from behind. The driver of the rental vehicle died as a result of the accident. Plaintiffs filed suit against the estate of the deceased driver for negligence and against the rental car company for vicarious liability. Plaintiffs alleged the rental car company was vicariously liable under Iowa’s owner consent statute, Iowa Code Section 321.493, because it owned and rented the vehicle to the alleged tortfeasor.

Hall and Clarke moved to dismiss the vicarious liability action, arguing plaintiffs failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. They argued plaintiffs could not recover because the vicarious liability claim was preempted by the Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. Section 30106(a), which provides:

An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the laws of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, if

The owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and

There is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).

Hall and Clarke argued plaintiffs’ action should be dismissed because there were no allegations of negligence or wrongdoing against the rental car company. In resistance, plaintiffs contended that their lawsuit provided “fair notice” that the rental car company was negligent. Hall and Clarke argued the only claim for which the rental car company had “fair notice” was vicarious liability.

The trial court found plaintiffs did not make any allegations of negligence or wrongdoing against the rental car company. The court stated it was “not fairly debatable” as the only claim asserted against the rental car company was vicarious liability. The court granted the dismissal, finding the plaintiffs’ vicarious liability claim was barred by the Graves Amendment.

Hewitt v. Estate of Tallman et al., Carroll County Case No. LACV040359.

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