When does the Designated Driver Have a Heightened Responsibility to Her Passengers?

By: T. Thomas Metier

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit looked at that question in Hiltner v. Owners Insurance Company, No. 16-3217 (8th Cir. 2017).
In this case, Samantha Denault (“Denault”) was the designated driver for a group of friends in North Dakota, who were going out partying one night. She remained sober, and when she took her group of friends to the car to get them all home, two decided to ride on the trunk, with their backs against the back windshield. Amy Hiltner (“Hiltner”) was one of the passengers. Denault protested a few times, but the two insisted they would be fine. When Denault went to drive them to one of the apartments, she was very careful, driving very slowly, checking on her trunk passengers every thirty seconds in the rear-view mirror. The drunk passenger (Josh Jeffries) sitting in the front passenger seat with Denault kept trying to put his foot atop her foot and push the accelerator. She fended him off multiple times. As the car was turning the final corner, he succeeded in pushing her foot down on the accelerator, causing the car to jerk forward as they turned, throwing trunk passenger Hiltner to the ground.

After Denault’s insurer paid Hiltner its policy limit of $25,000, Hiltner sought underinsured motorist benefits from Owners as an insured under her father’s automobile policy. Owners denied benefits, and Hiltner sued in North Dakota state court. Owners removed the case to federal court. The district court found Denault, Jeffries, and Hiltner each liable in part for the accident. The court apportioned fault of fifty-five percent to Denault, twenty-five percent to Jeffries, and twenty percent to Hiltner.

Owners argues that the district court improperly applied a heightened duty to Denault because she was the sober designated driver. North Dakota does not impose a heightened duty by statute; a person driving a vehicle must operate in a careful and prudent manner. The North Dakota courts have not imposed a heightened duty on designated drivers by common law. Other jurisdictions affirmatively have rejected that duty, saying heightened exposure to liability would make designated driver less willing to perform a valuable service.

The court concluded that Denault’s fault was greater than any other passenger because she volunteered to be the designated driver, she understood her job was to get her drunk friends home safely, she was the only sober person in the group and had the greatest ability to assess danger, she was in control of the car, and she should have stopped Jeffries from interfering with her driving.

The Court of Appeals says it is evident the lower court imposed a heightened duty on Denault because of her role as the sober designated driver for a group of intoxicated passengers. Most of the court’s rationale for assigning Denault a greater proportion of fault for Hiltner’s injuries was tied to her status as the designated driver, not to the manner in which she operated the vehicle.

The Court did not think the district court was wrong in concluding that Denault was at fault. But the Court does think the apportionment of fault among the participants was incorrect, potentially caused by legal error or unsupported by findings of fact that were necessary. The Court of Appeals vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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