By Jordan W. Charness
Peter looked terrible. In fact he looked like he been in an accident. It turned out he had. He also looked extremely annoyed, which probably explained why he barged into my office unannounced.
“I can’t believe they refused me! After all, I have been a loyal customer for many years. This is the third car that I bought from them. Not only that they are blaming me for the entire affair and they even want me to pay for everything! Can you beat that??” Peter was really on a roll.
Not only couldn’t I beat that, I didn’t even understand what “that” was. It took a few minutes for him to calm down enough to explain what happened to him. As usual his story was interesting, bizarre and could have happened to anybody — maybe.
Peter’s daughter had recently turned 16. She had finished all of her driving courses and was now the proud owner of a probationary driver’s license. Since Peter and his family lived in the suburbs he thought that it would be a good idea to buy her a used car so that she could get around without having to be driven or borrow Peter’s car. He went to the same dealer where he previously bought two other cars and purchased a reliable used car for his daughter.
The car still needed some work, though. Peter brought it in for service and left it with the service department. The work was done in a reasonable amount of time and Peter came to pick it up. He paid the bill and went out to the parking lot to get into the car to drive it home.
Unfortunately, Peter had forgotten that the car that he bought for his daughter was equipped with a manual transmission. Peter was not used to driving standard cars since his own car was an automatic. He got into the car, put the key into the ignition and turned the key without stepping on the clutch or checking to see if the car was in gear.
Although many modern cars equipped with manual transmissions have an interlock that requires you to fully depress the clutch before the car will start, his older car was not so equipped.
Turning the key in the ignition with the transmission in first gear caused the car to leap ahead. Peter was too startled to do anything in the brief time that it took for the car to smash into the plate glass window of the car dealership.
Since Peter had a bad habit of only putting on his seatbelt after starting his car, Peter was not belted in to his seat at the time of impact. Although he did not hit that quickly, crashing into the window still caused him to smash his head into the windshield, which caused his bruises and abrasions.
Needless to say, his unintended arrival inside the car showroom caused quite a stir. Fortunately no one was hurt aside from Peter and even his injuries looked worse than they were. When the dust settled the arguments began.
The dealership wanted Peter to pay for the damage that he caused by driving into their showroom via the plate glass window. Peter felt that it was their fault since they had left the car in first gear rather than in neutral with the parking brake engaged. He further argued that the car’s owner’s manual clearly indicated that the proper way to leave that car parked was in neutral with the emergency brake turned on. According to Peter, if the dealership had left the car the way they should have the whole accident would never have occurred.
Peter did not want to report the incident to his insurance company since he felt that he really was not at fault and that any payment made on his behalf would eventually lead to an increase in his insurance premiums.
The dealership on the other hand, was of the opinion that Peter should have engaged the clutch or at the very least checked to see what gear he was in before starting the car. While they admitted leaving the car in first gear they did not feel that they bore any of the responsibility for the incident.
Much as I wanted to side with Peter, in this particular instance I really could not. The law makes individuals responsible for damage caused by objects in their care and control. Although the dealer may have parked the car in first gear, it was Peter who actually had care and control of the vehicle when it was started.
Peter should have carefully checked to be sure that the car was in neutral before turning the key. The fact that he was not used to driving a car with a standard transmission was just as irrelevant as the fact that the dealer had left it in first gear. Once a driver gets behind the wheel of a car he or she assumes most of the responsibility for any damage that that car causes to someone else’s property.