What do I need to worry about if I am in a car accident with a Zip Car?

In a word, plenty. Zip cars are seen more and more on the streets of New York. Unfortunately, anyone injured in a car accident caused by the driver of a Zip Car will be out of luck if they try suing Zip Car. Background New York law has long imposed what is known as vicarious liability on the owner of a motor vehicle that is involved in an accident with injuries on the roads and parking lots of the state. The law in question is Vehicle & Traffic Law 388. This means that even if the owner was not in the car and had nothing to do with the accident, the owner was still on the hook for any damages caused by the driver of the owner’s vehicle assuming that the person injured in the accident can prove that he or she suffered a serious injury.

The Graves Amendment

The definition of an owner for the purposes of the statute (Vehicle & Traffic Law 388) used to include rental car companies and leasing companies. We say used to because these companies complained bitterly about the law and convinced Congress to pass a law known as the Graves Amendment, which as of August 10, 2005 eliminated any liability for such companies in almost all cases. So for example, if you were injured by an Avis Rent-A-Car or a leased Mercedes-Benz, you could not look to either of these companies to pay for the damages caused by the driver of the vehicle.

How does this apply to ZipCar?

It had been a question as to whether Zip Car, which is a car sharing service, would be insulated from liability under the Graves Amendment. ZipCar is a “membership-based car-sharing company that provides short term car rentals to its members, where members pay fees and usage fees that are billable by the hour or day. Rental rates include gas, insurance, and roadside assistance – as outlined in the membership contract.” This question has been answered by at least one trial court and the answer is NO! A state Supreme Court Judge in Brooklyn has dismissed a lawsuit against Zip Car finding that it is in the business of renting or leasing motor vehicles and is entitled to the protection of the Graves Amendment. The case is Moreau v. Josaphat 2014 NY Slip Op 31332(U) (Supreme Court, Kings County May 22, 2014). It takes an experienced lawyer to guide an injured person through the maze of insurance company forms and hurdles that are placed in the path of a car accident victim who seeks compensation.  While suing zipcar based solely on its status as an owner will not fly (absent circumstances which did not apply in the Moreau case), all possible avenues of recovery must be explored in any case. For now, until an appellate court rules to the contrary, a personal injury case against Zip Car is likely going nowhere.