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What is a “Guest Statute?”

Feb 22

A friend of mine called me one day last week and said that his daughter had been in an automobile accident. It seems that his daughter was riding as a passenger in a car with her friend. The driver lost control of the vehicle, running off the road and into a tree. My friend’s daughter suffered some severe injuries from the accident and the driver’s insurance company was giving him trouble about paying, even though the driver was clearly at fault. He asked me why the driver’s insurance company was reluctant to pay his daughter’s medical bills. The answer probably lies in Alabama’s “Guest Statute.”

A guest statute is law that makes it more difficult for a passenger in an automobile to recover damages from the driver for injuries received in an accident resulting from ordinary negligence on the part of the driver. Under the guest statute, passengers are generally limited to suits against drivers based on gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional misconduct. In other words, in an automobile accident case, the person who caused the accident is usually legally “negligent” and therefore responsible for the injured party’s damages. Under Alabama law, however, a passenger must prove the driver was not only negligent, but that he or she was grossly, or extremely, negligent or reckless in some way. Gross negligence is a much more difficult level of conduct to prove.

For example, a decision released recently by the Alabama Supreme Court, Phillips v. United Services Automobile Assoc., held there was no evidence of gross negligence in a single-vehicle accident where the driver took her eyes off the road in order to wave to friends in another vehicle, and then lost control, injuring a passenger. The driver may have been negligent, but not grossly negligent or reckless.

Arguably, the purpose of the guest statute is both to protect drivers from frivolous litigation and to protect insurance companies from collusive and fraudulent suits (where the passenger sues the driver in order to collect from the driver’s insurer). However, if my research is correct, all states in the United States have abolished their guest statute laws except for Alabama.

As with most other laws, there are some exceptions to Alabama’s guest statute law. For example, the Guest Statute does not apply to passengers who are on a business venture with the driver. Also, the Guest Statute does not apply to young children or incompetents due to their inability to consent to their status as a “guest” in the vehicle. Finally, the Guest Statute does not apply to guests who are paying their way or contributing to gas or maintenance of the vehicle.

Therefore, just because you or someone you know was a passenger in a vehicle and injured in an accident does not automatically mean that Alabama’s guest statute prevents recovery for damages. You should always, always speak with a lawyer when you have been in an accident. It is usually extremely important that a lawyer do a thorough investigation as quickly as possible after an accident in order to document and preserve information and evidence about the actions of the party at fault, especially when the guest statute law may apply.