ILG Wins at Division I: Stealing your Parents' Car Does Not Impose Liability on Parents
In here it first news, this opinion has not even hit the courts.wa.gov daily email. Why? Because it was emailed directly to Issaquah Law Group, as it is our appeal. Click on the case name to view a PDF of the opinion. Though unpublished (at present), it is our hope Division I will publish and help clarify the law of replevin.
So what happened? In short, Michael was estranged from his parents. He dropped by their house and took a car he had been explicitly told he could not use. He did not have a license. His parents tried to get the car back, calling him and telling him "Get the car home." They went looking for it. After a few days with no action, Michael was taking the car home when he got into an accident.
In the matter at hand, the Plaintiff abandoned the theory of Family Car Doctrine, and rightfully so. Michael did not live with his parents, and there is no question the car was not provided for general family use.
Plaintiff then argued that the statement to get the car home created an agency relationship. Though not mentioned in the opinion, there is a long history in the law of replevin that actions to obtain recapture of wrongfully taken chattel are absolutely privileged. The court's language, though not mentioning the law of replevin, lays out the law quite nicely:
Morgan argues here that, like in O'Brien, the alleged principal controlled (1) the time—in both cases, immediately; (2) the destination—in O'Brien the pickup place and here the parents' home; (3) the purpose—in O'Brien to pick the owner up and in this case to bring the parents' car home; and (4) the means—in both cases, driving.
But, an agency relationship arises only when the principal agrees to the agent's conduct. See O'Brien, 122 Wn. App. at 285. And, unlike Baxter and O'Brien, the parents did not ask Michael to take possession of the car or to work on their behalf. Rather, the parents had made it clear to Michael that he was never to use their vehicle. Yet, he took the car without their knowledge or consent. And, Michael continued to possess the car, even after his parents demanded that he return it immediately. His defiance demonstrates the parents' complete lack of control.
The law does not hold the vehicle owner liable for the negligent acts of an individual that has taken the vehicle unlawfully. See Kim v. Budget Rent A Car Sys., Inc., 143 Wn.2d 190, 202, 15 P.3d 1283 (2001) ("[W]e have held that the owner of an unsecured vehicle that is stolen and later involved in an accident is not liable for a third party's damages caused by the accident."). Michael had no more permission to possess the vehicle than the thief in the Kim case. None of Morgan's cited authority supports the principle that a person whose property is wrongfully taken can be held liable for the negligence of the person who wrongfully took the property.
Nevertheless, Morgan portrays the parents' demands that Michael return the vehicle as establishing an agency agreement with Michael. According to Morgan, once the parents requested that Michael return the car, his possession and use became permissive, for his parents' benefit (the vehicle's return), and under their control. If not establishing control, Morgan argues that, at a minimum, a question of fact has been raised which precludes summary judgment.
We hold that, as a matter of law, the bare demand that wrongfully taken property be returned, even when complied with, is insufficient to create a question of fact regarding the owner's right of control over the possessor, as is necessary to establish agency. The trial court did not err in granting the parents' motion for summary judgment.
This is a major win for the parents', as well as for anyone who asks for their property back. If you require appellate counsel, allow ILG to help. We offer a wide variety of services to insurers and self-insureds, including claims investigation, litigation, and appeals.