Posted On: November 5, 2012 by Stephen Bilkis

This case was brought about by a car accident involving a Pontiac automobile

This case was brought about by a car accident involving a Pontiac automobile which crashed into the living room of the house of the plaintiff-decedent after being pursued by members of the Suffolk County Police Department. The vehicle was owned by defendant-corporation, which rented the car to defendant-lessee, who alleged that defendant-perpetrator took possession of the subject vehicle without her knowledge or consent.

Defendant-corporation sought the dismissal of the complaint and alleged that it is the owner of the subject vehicle, as well as a company in the business of renting automobiles and is therefore insulated from liability by operation of the "Graves Amendment" as codified at 42 USCA §30106 and which is a part of the Federal Transportation Equity Act. Hence, all claims asserted against defendant-corporation must be dismissed as a matter of law.

Defendant-corporation’s Senior Loss Control Administrator stated that in December of 2006, it was the owner of the 2006 Pontiac automobile bearing the license plate CWJ197. He further states that on December 20, 2006, said vehicle was rented to defendant-lessee. The two affidavits authored by defendant-lessee revealed that she was not the owner of the 2006 Pontiac automobile but rather rented same on December 20, 2006 from defendant-corporation and that defendant-perpetrator operated the subject automobile without her knowledge, permission or consent.

The Federal Transportation Equity Act of 2005 and particularly that section referred to as the Graves Amendment as embodied in 49 USCA §30106 provided the following, in relevant part:

(a) In general — An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if—

(1) the owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and

(2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).

Having been determined to be a constitutional exercise in congressional power, the Graves Amendment is applicable to all actions commenced on or after August 10,2005 and has been held to preempt vicarious liability from being imposed upon commercial renters and lessors of automobiles.

In the instant matter, having reviewed the record, the Court held that defendant-corporation is entitled to the protection afforded by the statute. Even assuming that the rental agreement is in contravention of CPLR §4544 and therefore unavailable for use by defendant-corporation as competent evidence of ownership of the vehicle, defendant-corporation has demonstrated the applicability of the Graves Amendment to the extant circumstances.

Through the production of the affidavit of its Senior Loss Control Administrator, defendant-corporation in Westchester has demonstrated both that it was the owner of the vehicle in issue and that it was in fact an entity in the business of renting and or leasing motor vehicles (42 USCA §30106). Moreover, there is no evidence that defendant-corporation was negligent with respect to their maintenance of the subject vehicle or that it rented the automobile to defendant-perpetrator, the unauthorized operator of the vehicle on the day of the accident. In her affidavit, defendant-lessee clearly and unequivocally states that she was the individual who rented the car from defendant-corporation.

Based upon the foregoing, the court granted defendant-corporation’s motion pursuant to CPLR §3212 seeking an order granting summary judgment dismissing the plaintiffs complaint together with any and all cross-claims asserted against it.

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