If You Have A Fender-Bender On A Test Drive, Who's Liable: You Or The Dealer?

September 15, 2015

When you're shopping for a new ride, you always take a test drive, right? But what happens if you're in an accident during those 15 or 30 minutes? Who can be sued? 

That question was recently posed in a Colorado court of law, and as Auto News reports, the dealership was found to be just as liable -- and sue-able -- as the test-driver.

JOINT VENTURE

The case involved a woman named Kristin Hart, who test-drove a vehicle from Go Courtesy Ford in Littleton, Colorado while accompanied by a salesperson. Hart hit another vehicle and was found to be at fault, so the other driver's insurer, American Family Mutual Insurance Company, filed a negligence claim.

But American Family didn't just file that claim against Hart. It also named Go Courtesy Ford. 

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How? The company claimed that the test drive constituted a joint venture between Hart and Go Courtesy Ford.

A joint venture typically involves two entities working together on a particular project or goal. Because Hart and the salesperson had already negotiated a sales price on the vehicle, American Family argued that the joint project was, quite simply, conducting a test drive to wrap up the deal. Go Courtesy Ford, on the other hand, insisted that Hart and the dealership rep had very different goals and therefore couldn't have been in a joint venture.

RESULTS

Round One went to the defense, with a district court taking the side of Go Courtesy (now known as AutoNation Ford Littleton).

During Round Two, however, judges on the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously bought American Family's argument. The justices said that Hart and Go Courtesy not only had a common goal, but both also had the right to control the test vehicle. Legally speaking, those are two of the hallmarks of joint ventures.

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What's interesting is that if the sales rep hadn't accompanied Hart on her test drive, American Family may not have had a case. If Hart had gone it alone, judicial precedent would suggest that Go Courtesy Ford couldn't be held liable for her negligence because it had no ability to control the vehicle. But because the dealership had someone in the car with her, it became the dealership's right -- nay, responsibility -- to control the car if Hart was negligent.

Expect this one to go to the state supreme court -- and to generate a lot of discussion along the way.

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