Peter wandered into the office the other day looking somewhat the worse for wear and tear. His face was red and slightly scraped; he seemed to have a cut over one eye and his arm was in a sling. I asked if he had been in a car accident, and he sheepishly replied that indeed he had. I asked if he was alright and then prodded him for the details of the incident.

Since I’m usually the first one that Peter calls when he has an interesting car story, or gets into some difficulty with his car, I was somewhat surprised that I had not heard from him earlier. Oddly enough, he was reluctant to tell me anything at all. But using my formidable powers of “lawyerly persuasion” I got him to spill the beans.

The tale he told was truly incredible for its sheer stupidity if nothing else. About a week ago, he was driving with a friend in his friend’s car. Since it was his friend’s car, his friend was driving and Peter was sitting in the passenger seat. Not used to being a passenger he was constantly fiddling with the radio, CD, satellite receiver and air-conditioning controls.

While normally the politest of individuals, his friend finally told Peter to settle down and keep his hands to himself. After all, the driver of the car is legally responsible for the safe driving of the vehicle and has the right to tell unruly passengers to stop distracting him. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined the next major distraction he would face.

This particular car was equipped with a sunroof made of clear tempered glass. It was one of those beautiful Indian summer days, and since it was very hot outside, the sunroof itself was not open and the air conditioner was cranked to full blast. The sun beating in through the sunroof was enough to annoy Peter by heating just one side of his face.

Just then, Peter noticed an umbrella lying on the back seat. It was of the automatic opening variety. Without giving it any intelligent thought Peter reached over, took the umbrella in hand and pressed the button. In hindsight, Peter explained that his reason for opening an umbrella inside a car was that an umbrella would give him shade from the sun coming in from the sunroof. Of course he never thought of the consequences.

As soon as he pressed the button, the umbrella did what it was designed to do and unfolded and opened. Any umbrella that opened in the front seat of a car would be a distraction but in this particular case the umbrella opened right in front of the driver’s face completely cutting off his view of the road. According to Peter there is really is no quick and easy way to close an open, spring-loaded umbrella in the front seat of a car – at least not before the driver rammed his car into the car ahead of him with such force that the airbags deployed.

Airbags deploying into an open umbrella is not the way they were designed to deploy. While the airbags may have cushioned the blow from the accident they did push one of the points on a rib of the umbrella through Peter’s forehead. He also broke his arm. Luckily enough, the driver escaped with only a few bruises.

From a legal point of view, Peter is 100% at fault for this accident. Although he was not a driver, he was a passenger who caused a major distraction by completely obstructing the driver’s view which in turn caused the driver to drive into the car ahead of him. Since the car was a write-off, Peter is now afraid that his friend will sue him for the value of the car, particularly since he did not have two-way insurance.

Other lawsuits are probably pending as well and in each and every one of them Peter will likely be held personally responsible and neither his homeowners nor car insurance will cover him for the consequences of his incredibly stupid manoeuvre.

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