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When Is the Owner of a Vehicle Responsible for an Auto Accident Caused by a Negligent Driver?


Legal responsibility for an auto accident is not always limited to the negligent driver. If another person actually owned the vehicle, they may also be liable for any personal injury suffered by a third party. Under Iowa law, this “vicarious liability” applies when the owner gave their consent to allow the negligent driver to operate their vehicle. But Iowa law also provides that when an owner sells or otherwise transfers title to their vehicle, they are no longer vicariously liable for any accidents that may occur involving said vehicle.

Court: Pending Divorce Absolved Wife of Liability for Husband’s Fatal Auto Accident

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue in a case, Anderson v. Arndt, arising from a fatal accident that took place in 2015. During the July 4 holiday, a drunk driver struck and killed a woman in Harrison County. At the time, the drunk driver operated a Ford F-150 truck.

The deceased victim’s estate subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit, naming the woman listed on the F-150’s title certificate as a defendant. This woman was actually the estranged wife of the drunk driver who was behind the wheel at the time. The couple had acquired the F-150 truck during their marriage and had been listed as co-owners.

In January 2015, about six months before the accident, the spouses agreed during a divorce mediation that the husband would receive the F-150 as part of a final settlement. But the divorce itself did not become final until after the July 4 accident. Nevertheless, the trial court overseeing the wrongful death lawsuit concluded that the wife had effectively “transferred ownership of the F-150 to Austin no later than June 30, 2015, if not prior.” On that basis, the court held the wife could not be held vicariously liable for the husband’s accident.

Before the Court of Appeals, the estate argued that notwithstanding the state of the couple’s divorce at the time, the wife was still listed as a co-owner on the title certificate. The appeals court, however, dismissed this argument and affirmed the trial court’s decision. Based on the terms of a temporary order approved as part of the husband and wife’s divorce proceedings, she surrendered any right to use or possess the F-150 truck prior to June 30, 2015. Indeed, had she attempted to assert ownership on the date of the fatal July 4 accident, she would have been violating the divorce court’s orders. So regardless of the formal title situation, the Court of Appeals said she was not a co-owner “subject to vicarious liability” for the husband’s accident.

Speak with a Southeast Iowa Personal Injury Attorney Today

Determining who is legally responsible for an accident is often not as simple a task as you might think. There may be a number of potential defendants. It is therefore critical to conduct a thorough investigation before filing a lawsuit.

An experienced Southeast Iowa auto accident lawyer can provide you with guidance and representation in this area. Contact the Noyes Law Office today to speak with an attorney about your auto accident or other personal injury case.


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