Assessing fault: The designated driver? Or a drunken passenger who fell off the trunk of the car?

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2017

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled this past Tuesday that a designated driver should not be held to a greater degree of fault for a passenger’s injuries than the passenger. (Amy Hiltner v. Owners Insurance Company.)

The panel decision by Judge Steven Colloton of Des Moines joined by Judges Roger Wollman of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Bobby Shepherd of El Dorado, Arkansas, reversed a North Dakota trial court ruling that assigned the majority of fault to Samantha Denault, who drove six friends home. Hiltner and another member of the group insisted on riding on the trunk of the car, despite Denault’s repeated pleas to get inside the car. Hiltner fell off and sued to recover damages for her injuries.

The trial court ruled that Hiltner’s fault was greater than any other passenger because, among other things, she volunteered to be the designated driver and as the only sober person had the greatest ability to assess the danger.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying the findings of fact do not support assigning greater fault to Denault and pointed out that Denault twice told Hiltner to get off the trunk and that she twice refused. Nor did the district court find that Hiltner was “helpless.”

“None of this is to say that the district court erred in concluding that Denault was ‘at fault’ in the accident,” Colloton wrote.  “But we cannot escape the conclusion that the apportionment of fault among the participants was influenced materially by Denault’s status as the sober designated driver.  This allocation of increased responsibility to Denault was either infected by legal error or unsupported by findings of fact that are necessary to justify it.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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