NY Court: After Drunk Son Drives Father’s Car Through House, Father May Be Liable

In 2012, a Long Island man, Daniel Sajewski, rammed his father’s red Mercedes-Benz through a Huntington house, narrowly missing the two elderly sisters that lived in the residence. Sajewski was, perhaps predictably, intoxicated – blowing an off-the-chart 0.30 on a breathalyzer, far exceeding New York’s 0.08 limit. In addition to losing their belongings (including a wedding band that could not be located in the rubble), the car accident left the two 90-year-old sisters homeless for several months. In 2013, the judge sentenced Sajewski to one-and-a-half years to three years in prison.

More recently, State Farm, who insured the house that was destroyed, has decided to pursue legal action against Sajewski’s father, the owner of the vehicle. State Farm is seeking $180,000 from the father to reimburse it for the money spent on repairing the home. State Farm is able to pursue this claim because, under New York law, the owner of a vehicle is liable for the damages caused by its drivers – so long as the driver has the owner’s permission to operate the vehicle.  According to the statute, the permission can be expressly stated or implied.

The father and son both state that no permission was granted for the son to drive the vehicle. The Supreme Court, the lowest court in New York State, disagreed – stating that there is a “strong presumption” that a vehicle’s driver has permission by its owner. After appealing the Supreme Court’s decision, the Appellate Division, Second Department agreed with the lower court – stating that the father could bring his case before a jury and attempt to persuade them, but that the evidence offered was not strong enough for the court to merely dismiss the entire lawsuit.

The Court found evidence that the son routinely used the father’s car, lived in his father’s home, and that the car key was freely accessible in the kitchen as sufficient evidence. The case will now go before the jury where the father must overcome what the Court called a “strong, but rebuttable presumption” that the son had permission to drive his vehicle.

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