What are the Rights of Passengers in a Car Wreck?

We'll discuss the guest-passenger statute, and how that can be a bar to recovery if the driver of your vehicle is deemed to be at-fault. There are, of course, exceptions.

Alabama Code 32-1-2 states, 

“The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest while being transported without payment therefor in or upon said motor vehicle, resulting from the operation thereof, unless such injuries or death are caused by the willful or wanton misconduct of such operator, owner, or person responsible for the operation of the motor vehicle.”

This is commonly referred to as the guest-passenger statute or guest law.  A brief background may help explain it a tad more. First of all, Alabama is one of the few states with such a law on the books. The law was originally enacted in 1935 when most Alabama roads were unpaved, and there were very few cars on the road. The public policy back then was that a good citizen, doing a good deed, i.e., such as giving someone a lift, should not be held liable for simple or ordinary negligence. That public policy has seemed to have vanquished with time, and it is likely time to eradicate this law from the books. I mean, why should the driver not owe his guest or passenger the same duty of care (ordinary care or reasonable care) that he owes to society at large?  Be that as it may, it still exists today, so what does this law really mean?

The law seems to differentiate between “guest” and “passenger,” where if you are defined as the former, there is no recovery, but the latter can in the case of driver’s negligence. If you are a simply a guest in a vehicle, and the driver is negligent, then you cannot sue that driver for your injuries sustained. As with most laws, there are exceptions, and that’s really what we’re concerned with here. One way to get around the law is if you, as passenger, provided some monetary assistance with the trip. Let’s say you said, “if you give me a ride to the bank, I’ll buy your lunch.” Under the law, that would remove you as a “guest” and define you more as a “passenger.”  Or, I’ll fill up your tank if you’ll take me to work.” In those scenarios you could likely get around the bar to recovery if you were injured in a subsequent accident due to the driver’s own acts or omissions. 

Another way to get around the law is if the driver was grossly negligent, or was deemed to have acted with willfulness or wantonness. A good example of this is if the driver were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The driver, in that situation, would likely be deemed to have acted with gross negligence or wantonness, and you, as passenger could likely recover against the at-fault driver. 

So, while the argument can strongly be made that the guest passenger statute is antiquated and no longer serves our current public policy, it is on the books and is the law in Alabama as of the date of this blog post. I hope this sheds some light on the law, and helps you understand a bit more.

If you’ve been injured in an accident, we want to be the one you lean on, the one you trust to lead and guide you to recovery. Call our office today, (205) 939-0780, and let’s sit down and discuss.