RI Rental Car Accident With Personal Injuries: RI Supreme Court Issues Decision

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If you have suffered personal injuries in a Rhode Island car accident involving a rental car, a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision may apply to your case.

On June 4, 2019, the Rhode Island Supreme Court announced its decision in Jason Puerini et al. v. Jeanne LaPierre et al., No. 16-335 (June 4, 2019).

In Puerini, the Court held that federal law preempted state law that had authorized vicarious liability of a car owner for the negligent acts of the driver. Federal preemption invalidates state law where there is a conflict.

In this case, the plaintiff suffered personal injuries in a Rhode Island car accident. The at fault driver was driving a rental car. The plaintiff’s lawyer brought claims against several entities, including the car owner, a lessor. (The lessor had leased the car to the at fault driver). The at fault driver held their own auto insurance.

The Court agreed with the trial court (and the lessor) that federal law known as the Graves Amendment, barred plaintiff from pursuing the lessor.

The Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C., Sec. 30106, is part of a 2005 law that in part reforms tort actions by intending to bar recovery against car rental and leasing companies.  The law’s stated intent to bar recovery against car rental and leasing companies for harm caused in their vehicles directly conflicts with our community’s public policy of compensating innocent car accident victims for their losses.

In this case, the Supreme Court examined Rhode Island law that does permit such actions and concluded that due to the conflict, the federal law trumped state law, specifically R.I. Gen Laws §31-34-4.

The Court found it significant that state law, which favors ensuring that “innocent victims of motor vehicle accidents may be recompensed for the injury,” requires applicants for registration of cars to sign a statement attesting that their car is covered by financial security.

Unfortunately, in reality, Rhode Island currently has no real manner in which to enforce whether registrants are current with their auto insurance. Many times, we have found that while a vehicle owner originally attests to insurance coverage at the time of registration, in reality, the attestation is either untrue, or by the time of a crash, the auto insurance has lapsed.  Short of federal repeal of the Graves Amendment, newer technology and enforcement at the state registry level, along with higher required minimal auto insurance is the real answer here to protecting car accident victims.

At the Bottaro Law Firm, LLC, our lawyers handle Rhode Island car accident cases everyday. We stay on top of the latest legal decisions to help you win your case. If you have a question about a rental car accident – or about any car accident involving a personal injury, we are here to help.

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