Slippin’ Clutch and Slippin’ Jimmy

If you’re driving a vehicle with a manual transmission, you’d better be careful about whom you let drive it–including dealership mechanics.

Apparently, it is your legal obligation to vet the mechanics’ competence including their ability to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. If not, and one of them accidentally lets out the clutch with the engine running, the transmission in gear, and there happens to be another mechanic in the way (or underneath) the car who happens to end up maimed or dead–it’s you who gets sued.

In one case, to the tune of $15 million in asserted damages and compensation sought by the family of the mechanic who died after another mechanic did just that.

Jeffrey Hawkins, a 42-year-old mechanic at Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Michigan, was killed when another dealership employee–a 19-year-old without a driver’s license and (apparently) knowledge of the workings of a manual transmission got into the customer’s vehicle, which had been brought to the dealership for an oil change. He started the engine, released the clutch and then a terrible thing happened said David Femminineo, the lawyer who is represents the man killed and who is suing the man who had nothing to do with killing him.

The dealership who hired and failed to vet the 19-year-old’s ability to safely handle vehicles with manual transmissions or even whether he had a license to drive anything, isn’t being sued. The 19-year-old whose inadvertence at best and reckless incompetence at worst directly caused the death of Hawkins didn’t get as much as a traffic ticket.

He is free to go.

But the owner of the vehicle who brought it in for an oil change and was waiting in the lobby when all of this happened, now faces the loss of everything he and his family possess, in the event a court awards the vehicle owner everything he possesses as compensation for the damages caused by the dealership’s employee who couldn’t drive a stick and had no business driving anything.

That’s the law, according to Femminineo.

He told Fox News that, under Michigan law, an employee injured or killed by another employee’s actions while on the job cannot sue the “boss.” In this case, the dealership, who didn’t vet the incompetent and reckless 19-year-old who caused the death of Hawkins and even agreed and accepted that the “boss” acted negligently by not vetting him.

Thus, the family of the victim cannot sue the “boss” for damages. Hawkins’ family will receive worker’s compensation for lost wages, based on his salary at the time of his death.

But under a Michigan law, the Owner’s Liability Statute, the Hawkins family can also pursue additional damages in civil court, these to be paid out of the pocket (or liquidated assets) of the owner of the vehicle. Even if it is agreed, accepted, and uncontested that the owner of the vehicle had nothing to do with the action that led to the accident/death caused by someone else operating (or attempting to operate) his vehicle.

The mere fact of handing over the keys to another party makes the owner potentially liable for any damages subsequently caused by the person to whom he handed over the keys even if that person is a dealership mechanic or represented as such and, presumably, competent (and vetted) to safely operate the vehicle.

“When you hand your car over to anybody including the valet or the person at the service desk at your local dealership, you better be able to trust that person,” claims the Hawkins’ family attorney.

The law is the law.

But it takes a certain kind of lawyer to go after someone who caused no harm to anyone and who clearly acted in good faith, by handing over the keys to his vehicle to dealership staff, whom any reasonable person would assume had been vetted by the dealership to establish their competence to drive as well as their legality to drive.

It appears that under the law in Michigan, the owner of the vehicle should have demanded to see the driver’s license of every person who might have access to and could possibly have gotten behind the wheel of his vehicle, and established that everyone who might get behind the wheel is competent to operate a vehicle with a manual transmission before handing over his keys.

Else be on the hook for everything, in the event someone who can’t drive stick and has no business driving, period — attempts to drive your vehicle and in the process ends up maiming or killing someone.

The law probably was meant to address the problem of an irresponsible person giving the keys to his vehicle to someone (like an underage teen) who then wrecks and maims or kills someone. But the fact remains, it is being used to potentially bankrupt a responsible vehicle owner, who had every reason to believe the people he handed his keys to were responsible professionals—mechanics–who knew how to drive and were vetted to drive.

It is not the same as tossing the keys (and maybe a six-pack of beer) to a 14-year-old and telling him to go have some fun.

Except it is, in terms of the law in Michigan. Perhaps other states, too.

Bear in mind that even if the defendant, the owner of the vehicle, wins, he still loses whatever it will end up costing him to fight off this Slippin’ Jimmy in court. That’s the way the law works in this country. You get sued–you need a lawyer. Lawyers aren’t free in civil proceedings. So you pay your lawyer to battle the other lawyer, in the hope you don’t have to pay more.

What Shakespeare said about lawyers applies more aptly to laws that enable lawyers.

In the meanwhile, be careful about whom you hand your keys to now. Even if it’s a dealership “mechanic.”

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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