Person Leaving Keys in Car May Be Liable, Tennessee Court Rules

December 13, 2010

A Tennessee court has ruled that a person who leaves keys in a car can be held responsible if the car is stolen and then involved in a crash.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals– in a case involving a stolen car, a police chase and a wreck in Murfreesboro in 2007– agreed with lower courts in throwing out the car crash victim’s negligence claim against the city and police who pursued the stolen vehicle, but said the case against the person who left the keys in the borrowed car could proceed.

On May 18, 2007, Sandra Newman was driving her car along a street in Murfreesboro; her granddaughter and her friend were passengers. They were all injured when Newman’s car, a 1994 Dodge Spirit, was struck by a 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis registered to Rubye Jarrell. The Grand Marquis had been stolen earlier that day and at the time of the collision was driven by an unknown driver. Shortly before the accident, Murfreesboro police officers had attempted to stop the Grand Marquis due to its excessive speed, but the Grand Marquis failed to stop.

Plaintiffs sued the city of Murfreesboro and its police department, arguing that the stolen car was being pursued by the police immediately prior to the accident. They also claimed negligence against Jarrell, who had the car registered; her grandson Joseph D. Ash Jr., who had left keys in the car, and the unknown driver of the other car.

While the trial court summarily dismissed all claims including the the case against Ash simply because the keys had not been left in the ignition, the appeals court said that was an error. The appeals court said that determinations regarding the liability of the car operator depend upon “the entire circumstantial spectrum” and added that there is “no meaningful distinction” between a situation in which keys are left in the ignition and one in which they are left on the front seat or on the dashboard in plain view. In this case, the court said that material facts were in dispute, including the location of the keys left in the car by Ash, whether the car was parked in a private driveway or on the street, and whether it was locked.

The case is Sandra Newman, et al. v. Rubye J. Jarrell, et al.

Tenn. Newman v Jarrell

Latest Comments

  • December 20, 2010 at 1:16 am
    Shield says:
    Yeah, sure wouldn't want to hold the thief responsible would we. That would make way to much sense.
  • December 20, 2010 at 9:38 am
    2lanelover says:
    This judgement makes about as much sense as leaving your house unlocked and getting sued by a cleptomaniac for stealing your stuff!! Our legal system is slowly wittleing away ... read more
  • December 14, 2010 at 1:58 am
    Jeff says:
    I have been away from claims for a long time, but there used to be a doctine called "proximate cause." To be lible there had to be a chain of events that a reasonable person ... read more
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