Hitchhikers and Family Members: No Injury Claims Allowed

Hitchhikers and Family Members: No Injury Claims Allowed
January 29, 2014 jamesludlow

Occasionally we receive a call regarding a truck or auto crash that was caused by the negligence of a family member of the injured person.   Although hitchhiking is rarer these days, once in a while a hitchhiker is injured by the person who had given them a ride. Unfortunately, even if the injuries are severe and the negligence of the person driving the vehicle is undisputed, under Indiana’s Guest Statute, no injury claim is allowed.

Indiana’s Guest Statue is a law that eliminates the liability of a vehicle’s owner and driver for injuries sustained by a family member or a hitchhiker that were caused by the negligence of the vehicle’s driver.   Indiana enacted its first guest statute in 1929, during a period when several other states were adopting similar laws.  Interestingly, many states such as Illinois have since repealed such laws, but not Indiana.

As to why such statutes were enacted, some legislators worried that folks transporting family members or others in their vehicle as a kindness could later be “punished” for their good deed by a lawsuit if a crash should happen.  Apparently a lesser concern was how the innocent victim was to pay for the cost of medical care that was needed because of the accident.  Another rationale was the fear that family members might engage in insurance fraud to gain money from the driver’s liability insurance policy (Indiana Law Journal, Volume 34, Issue 2 (January 1959), pg. 339-340. Available here).

Indiana’s current Guest Statute states as follows:

IC 34-30-11-1
Guest statute
Sec. 1. The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle is not liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or the death of:

(1) the person’s parent;
(2) the person’s spouse;
(3) the person’s child or stepchild;
(4) the person’s brother;
(5) the person’s sister; or
(6) a hitchhiker;

resulting from the operation of the motor vehicle while the parent, spouse, child or stepchild, brother, sister, or hitchhiker was being transported without payment in or  upon the motor vehicle unless the injuries or death are caused by the wanton or willful misconduct of the operator, owner, or person responsible for the operation of the motor vehicle.

As provided by this statute, it only applies to immediate family members and hitchhikers. Thus, a person can sue the negligent driver of a vehicle they are riding in at the time of the crash even if they are friends, cousins, or even step or half siblings (see, Murphy v. Cole, 647 N.E.2d 387 (Ind. App. 1995)).  However, no claim is allowed if the injured passenger is the driver’s child, step child, spouse, parent, full-blooded brother or sister, or a hitchhiker who is getting a ride for free.   However, the harsh result of this statute has caused some exceptions such as the following.

In 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court considered a case involving a 46 year old son who was injured when he was standing outside his father’s vehicle directing him back into a parking space (Clark v. Clark, 971 N.E.2d 58 (Ind. 2012)). As the son signaled for his father to stop, the father accidentally pushed the gas pedal instead of the brake, which caused the vehicle to run over and severely injure his son.  The father’s insurance company did not want to pay and tried to use the Indiana Guest Statute to bar any claim by the son, even though the son was not a passenger in the car when he was injured. The trial court agreed with the insurer that the statute barred the father’s liability. The son appealed the case on the basis that Indiana’s Guest statute only bars cases when the relative victim was being transported “in or upon the motor vehicle.” Because the son was standing in the parking lot outside the vehicle, the argument was that the statute could not bar the claim. While the Indiana Court of Appeals sided with the insurance company, the case ended up at the Indiana Supreme Court.  In its decision, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Guest Statute did not bar the son’s claim because he was not in the father’s vehicle when he was injured.

Insurance companies favor this statute because they don’t have to pay anything when the statute applies.  However, the statute does nothing to help innocent victims even if they are severely injured by the negligence of a close relative.  As a child, my parents taught me that one owes a higher duty to one’s family and friends as compared to strangers, especially if I messed up.  Apparently insurance companies are an exception!

If you’ve been injured in a serious accident, hiring an attorney who knows what questions to ask can make all the difference regarding what financial recovery you will receive.  Please call the offices of Indiana Car Accident Attorney James Ludlow at 1-877-897-9466 or submit the simple form on the Contact Us page for a free case evaluation and put my experience and knowledge to work for you.