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Pipher v. Parsell

Citation. 930 A.2d 890
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Citation930 A.2d 890
930 A.2d 890

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff was a passenger in defendant’s truck. As defendant drove along the highway, another passenger grabbed the steering wheel twice. After the wheel was grabbed a second time, the truck crashed into a tree and plaintiff was injured. Plaintiff sued defendant for negligence.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

When it is foreseeable that the actions of a passenger will interfere with the driver’s safe operation of a motor vehicle, then the failure to prevent such conduct may be a breach of the driver’s duty to either other passengers or to the public.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Disputed issues of foreseeability and proximate cause involve factual determinations that must be submitted to a jury.

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Facts.

Parsell, Pipher, and Beisel were traveling in Parsell’s pickup truck along a Delaware highway one evening. All three teenagers sat in the front seat while Parsell drove at a speed of 55 miles per hour. During the trip, Beisel unexpectedly grabbed the steering wheel and caused the truck to veer onto the shoulder of the road. Parsell regained control of the truck, but otherwise did nothing in response to Beisel’s actions. Approximately thirty seconds later, Beisel grabbed the steering wheel again. The truck veered off the roadway, slid down an embankment, and struck a tree. Pipher was injured as a result of the accident. At trial, Parsell admitted that he could have done more to prevent Beisel from grabbing the steering wheel a second time. The trial judge ruled that Parsell had no duty after Beisel grabbed the steering wheel the first time because it was reasonable to assume that Beisel would not do it again. Additionally, the judge ruled that Parsell’s failure to admonish or discharge Beisel from the truck was not negligence. Pipher appealed to the Supreme Court of Delaware, arguing that the trial court erred by holding that Parsell was not negligent.

Issue.

Whether the driver of a vehicle owes a duty of care to his or her passengers when the actions of his or her passengers may interfere with the safe operation of the motor vehicle?

Held.

Yes, the driver of a vehicle owes his or her passengers a duty of care. The driver may be found liable for negligence when there is a foreseeable harm that interferes with the driver’s safe operation of the motor vehicle. The trial court’s judgment as a matter of law is reversed. There were factual determinations that should have been submitted to the jury. The case is remanded for further proceedings.

Discussion.

Delaware law requires minors who operate a motor vehicle to be held to the same standard of care as adult motorists under the same or similar circumstances. If the actions of a passenger that caused the accident were foreseeable, then the driver was negligent for failing to prevent such misconduct. In a similar case in Vermont, a driver was held liable for damages when a drunken passenger seized the arm of the driver, resulting in a collision. There, the drunken passenger had attempted to shake hands with the driver for over fifteen minutes. The driver therefore was put on notice of foreseeably harmful conduct by one of his passengers. In the case at hand, a jury could find that Parsell breached his duty of care to Pipher by his failure to prevent Beisel from grabbing the wheel again. When a driver is made aware of potentially harmful conduct by a passenger, the driver must make an attempt to prevent the passenger from taking such actions again.


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