In a recent decision by the Second Department of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, the Appellate Court overturned a trial court’s ruling that dismissed an injured plaintiff’s action based upon a "a legal fiction carried over from the days of the horse and buggy where the owner could easily regain control of a horse by reaching over and taking the reins from a negligent driver."
The plaintiff in Mikelinich v. Caliandro, 8430/09, NYLJ 1202500186042, at *1 (App. Div., 2nd, Decided July 5, 2011) was the owner of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) who was injured when he permitted the defendant try the ATV. The defendant’s moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff owned the vehicle and permitted the defendant to use it. Thus, it was argued, liability for the accident was attributable to the plaintiff pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law 2411.
In Gochee v. Wagner (257 NY 344), the Court of Appeals held that the negligence of the driver of a motor vehicle had to be imputed to the owner of the vehicle for purposes of the owner’s claims against the other driver if the owner was a passenger in the vehicle at the time of the accident. This rationale was grounded on the premise that the owner was present and, thus, he or she could exercise authority and control over the driver’s actions at any time.
Calling this "an issue of first impression" the Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal and pointed out that the Gochee rule was overturned in the context of VTL 388 (which applies to automobiles) and was based on long outdated notions.
The rule was based on a legal fiction that the owner had the capacity to interfere with the operation of the car, a legal fiction carried over from the days of the horse and buggy where the owner could easily regain control of a horse by reaching over and taking the reins from a negligent driver.