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Graham v. Jones

Supreme Court of New York, Fourth Department

February 3, 2017

RAEQUEL L. GRAHAM, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CHARLESETTA JONES, YASMINE H. KIRKSEY, DEFENDANTS, AND BUFFALO AUTO RENTAL, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

          OSBORN, REED & BURKE LLP, ROCHESTER (JEFFREY P. DIPALMA OF COUNSEL), FOR DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

          DOLCE PANEPINTO, P.C., BUFFALO (ANNE M. WHEELER OF COUNSEL), FOR PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT.

          PRESENT: WHALEN, P.J., SMITH, CENTRA, PERADOTTO, AND CARNI, JJ.

         Appeal from an order of the Supreme Court, Erie County (Shirley Troutman, J.), entered May 28, 2015. The order, insofar as appealed from, denied in part the motion of defendant Buffalo Auto Rental, Inc., for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against it.

         It is hereby ORDERED that the order so appealed from is affirmed without costs.

         Memorandum: Plaintiff commenced this action seeking damages for injuries she sustained when her vehicle collided with a vehicle operated by defendant Yasmine H. Kirksey and owned by defendant Buffalo Auto Rental, Inc. (BAR). Kirksey did not have a driver's license at the time of the accident. The vehicle operated by Kirksey had been rented by defendant Charlesetta Jones from BAR. Jones testified at her deposition that she had rented vehicles from BAR three or four times before the accident. Plaintiff commenced this action and alleged causes of action for negligence, negligent entrustment, and vicarious liability against BAR. With respect to the negligent entrustment cause of action, plaintiff alleged that BAR rented the vehicle to Jones and that BAR knew or should have known that the vehicle would be operated by drivers other than Jones, such as Kirksey, who did not have a driver's license.

         Plaintiff previously moved to strike the answer and affirmative defenses of BAR as they pertained to the cause of action for negligent entrustment or, in the alternative, to preclude BAR from offering evidence relevant to negligent entrustment, because of its spoliation of evidence. In a prior order, Supreme Court found that BAR was negligent in destroying its electronic records concerning any vehicle rentals to Jones or Kirksey, and ordered that BAR was precluded from introducing evidence of its electronic rental records with respect to Jones or Kirksey at trial, with the exception of an unsigned rental agreement between BAR and Jones involving the vehicle in the instant collision that BAR had already disclosed. The court further ordered that plaintiff was permitted to make an application at the time of trial for an adverse inference charge based on BAR's failure to keep electronic records.

         BAR moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against it, and plaintiff abandoned the negligence cause of action and withdrew the vicarious liability cause of action, leaving only the negligent entrustment cause of action. The court granted the motion in part by dismissing the vicarious liability cause of action and denied that part of the motion seeking dismissal of the negligent entrustment cause of action, and we now affirm. "The owner or possessor of a dangerous instrument is under a duty to entrust it to a responsible person whose use does not create an unreasonable risk of harm to others" (Hamilton v Beretta U.S.A. Corp., 96 N.Y.2d 222, 236; see Kelly v DiCerbo, 27 A.D.3d 1082, 1083). "The duty may extend through successive, reasonably anticipated entrustees" (Hamilton, 96 N.Y.2d at 237). "The tort of negligent entrustment is based on the degree of knowledge the supplier of a chattel has or should have concerning the entrustee's propensity to use the chattel in an improper or dangerous fashion" (id. at 237; see Earsing v Nelson, 212 A.D.2d 66, 70). To establish a negligent entrustment cause of action, a plaintiff must show that the defendant had "some special knowledge concerning a characteristic or condition peculiar to the [person to whom a particular chattel is given] which renders [that person's] use of the chattel unreasonably dangerous" (Monette v Trummer, 105 A.D.3d 1328, 1330, affd 22 N.Y.3d 944');">22 N.Y.3d 944 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Byrne v Collins, 77 A.D.3d 782, 784, lv denied 17 N.Y.3d 702). With respect to motor vehicles, an owner may be liable "if [it] had control over the vehicle and if [it] was negligent in entrusting [the vehicle] to one who [it] knew, or in the exercise of ordinary care should have known, was incompetent to operate [the vehicle]" (Bennett v Geblein, 71 A.D.2d 96, 98).

         Even assuming, arguendo, that BAR met its initial burden of establishing its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law with respect to the negligent entrustment cause of action, we conclude that plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact. We agree with plaintiff that Vlad Kats, the president of BAR, as well as Jones and Kirksey, "gave wildly differing testimon[y] [at their depositions] concerning all issues relevant to the negligent entrustment cause of action." In the event they so testify at trial, such inconsistent testimony may warrant a falsus in uno charge (see generally DiPalma v State of New York, 90 A.D.3d 1659, 1660). That conflicting evidence, together with the adverse inference to which plaintiff may be entitled at trial, raised a question of fact whether BAR had special knowledge that Kirksey would be driving the vehicle and doing so without a driver's license.

         We reject BAR's contention that it cannot be held liable even if it knew that Kirksey would be driving the vehicle without a driver's license. The fact that Kirksey did not possess a driver's license is a factor to consider in determining whether BAR knew that Kirksey was incompetent to operate the vehicle (see Nolechek v Gesuale, 46 N.Y.2d 332, 336-337, 340 [negligent entrustment cause of action stated where the father purchased a motorcycle for his son who, inter alia, did not possess a license]; Cone v Williams [appeal No. 1], 182 A.D.2d 1102, 1102, lv denied 80 N.Y.2d 758');">80 N.Y.2d 758 [in support of the counterclaim for negligent entrustment, the defendants were allowed to elicit testimony from the father of the infant plaintiff that his son was not a licensed operator of the all-terrain vehicle]; Calhoun v Allen, 38 Misc.3d 171, 178-179 [car rental business failed to meet its burden because it failed to establish that the driver to whom it rented the vehicle had a valid driver's license]; cf. Monette, 105 A.D.3d at 1330-1331 [the vehicle repair shop verified that the driver, inter alia, had a valid driver's license]). While we agree with the dissent that "the absence or possession of a driver's license is not relevant to the issue of negligence" in the operation of a motor vehicle (Huff v Rodriguez, 88 A.D.3d 1274, 1275, appeal dismissed 18 N.Y.3d 869, lv denied 18 N.Y.3d 919), this is a negligent entrustment cause of action, where the issue does not concern the manner in which the accident occurred. Rather, the issue is whether BAR should have entrusted the vehicle to Kirksey in the first instance.

         All concur except Peradotto, and Carni, JJ., who dissent and vote to reverse the order insofar as appealed from in accordance with the following memorandum: We respectfully dissent. Plaintiff's cause of action for negligent entrustment is premised upon the theory that, in renting the vehicle to defendant Charlesetta Jones, defendant Buffalo Auto Rental, Inc. (BAR) knew the vehicle would be used by defendant Jasmine H. Kirksey and that BAR also knew, or in the exercise of ordinary care should have known, that Kirksey was incompetent to operate it (see Bennett v Geblein, 71 A.D.2d 96, 98). It is well settled that, without a showing that the owner of the vehicle was or should have been aware of incompetence on the part of the operator, there can be no negligent entrustment (see Guay v Winner, 189 A.D.2d 1081, 1083). Here, plaintiff's theory that Kirksey was not competent to operate a motor vehicle is based entirely upon the undisputed fact that Kirksey did not possess a driver's license at the time of the accident.

         However, it is well settled that "the absence or possession of a driver's license relates only to the authority for operating a vehicle, and not to its manner of operation" (Almonte v Marsha Operating Corp., 265 A.D.2d 357, 357; see Huff v Rodriguez, 88 A.D.3d 1274, 1275, appeal dismissed 18 N.Y.3d 869, lv denied 18 N.Y.3d 919; Firmes v Chase Manhattan Auto. Fin. Corp., 50 A.D.3d 18, 27, lv denied 11 N.Y.3d 705). Because a driver's license relates only to the authority to operate a motor vehicle and not the manner of operation, the absence of a license is not presumptive evidence of negligence (see Phass v MacClenathen, 274 A.D. 535, 538). Indeed, we have held that evidence that a driver did not possess a valid driver's license at the time of the subject motor vehicle accident is inadmissible on the issue of negligence (see Huff, 88 A.D.3d at 1275).

         Here, we conclude that in moving for summary judgment, BAR met its initial burden of proof by submitting evidence that when it rented the vehicle to Jones it had no knowledge that Kirksey would be operating the vehicle or that Kirksey was incompetent to operate a motor vehicle (see generally Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., 68 N.Y.2d 320, 324). In opposition, plaintiff had the burden of raising a material issue of fact as to both BAR's knowledge of Kirksey's use and of Kirksey's alleged incompetence to operate the vehicle (see generally Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557, 562).

         There is no dispute that Kirksey was beyond infancy in that she was 21 years of age at the time of the accident (see CPLR 105 [j]). Plaintiff does not allege that Kirksey was, for example, intoxicated (see Bennett, 71 A.D.2d at 98-99), mentally incapacitated (see Splawnik v Di Caprio, 146 A.D.2d 333, 335-336), physically impaired (see generally Golembe v Blumberg, 262 A.D. 759, 759; Schneider v Van Wyckhouse, 54 N.Y.S.2d 446, 447), or otherwise incompetent to operate a motor vehicle at the time of ...


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