Car Rental Immunity Law Held Unconstitutional By Federal Judge
Late Friday, a federal judge held that the "Graves Amendment" is unconstitutional. The 2005 federal law abolished vicarious liability of long-term automobile lessors based solely on ownership. Thus, states such as New York that hold the owners of cars vicariously liable for the negligence of people they permit to drive their cars, saw their state statutes or common law superseded by federal legislation. One defense firm had written when the law was passed that: "This law is sure to change the landscape of motor vehicle accident litigation throughout the United States."
One of the remarkable things about this landmark piece of legislation was that it was slipped into a 900 page bill in the wee hours of the morning at a House-Senate conference, and had never been the subject of floor discussion or debate. According to the same article from the defense firm, the legislation affected Florida, Connecticut, Maine, and mostly New York.
But U.S. District Court Judge Michael Moore, sitting in the Southern District of Florida, dumped the law on its head, become the first federal judge to declare the federal meddling in state business to be unconstitutional, finidng that the law violates the Commerce Clause. The decision is here: Vanguard-v-Huchon.pdf. The law had previously been held unconstitutional in New York by a trial court judge, violating both the Tenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause.
The legislation has been a source of concern for the clients of personal injury law practitioners, not simply due to the hypocrisy of an allegedly conservative band of politicians sticking their nose into state matters, but because it allowed owners to rent or lease their cars without regard to the liability concerns of renting to people who use those cars in a negligent manner.
The Washington, DC-based Center for Constitutional Litigation represented the car crash victim. In a press release (not yet up on their web site), they wrote:
"In this statute Congress did not even try to regulate commerce. It told the states what their tort law had to be, whether it affected interstate commerce or not. The Constitution does not give Congress that power."
These cases are sure to go up to appellate courts.
(Eric Turkewitz is a personal injury attorney in New York)