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The Alabama Guest Passenger Statute. If You Are Injured, What Can You Do?

Blackwell Law FirmYou are passenger in a car. You are riding down the road. Everything seems fine. Suddenly, your driver runs a stop sign. He did not see it. He crashes into a culvert. You are hurt severely. When you later call your driver’s insurance adjuster to make a claim, the adjuster says he’s sorry but your claim is barred by the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute. Your driver probably wants his insurance company to pay you. But, that doesn’t matter. The adjuster simply denies your claim.

I’ve written previously about the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute. You can read one of my prior posts on this topic at Guest Passenger Statute In Alabama? Does It Affect My Personal Injury Claim? My prior post gives a good overview of this law. In it, I discuss the background of this unfair law. I also explain the law as well as some exceptions to it. As with most legal issues, the exceptions are key! Today, I’ll touch again briefly on the exceptions. But, I primarily want to provide a little practical advice in this post for passengers injured in car accidents. If you are a passenger injured in an Alabama car accident, what should you expect? How do you handle this issue? You need practical advice for your claim.

During the 1920s and 1930s, many states passed guest passenger statutes. Insurance company lobbyists worked hard to get these unfair laws passed across the United States. While many states have since abandoned this unfair rule, Alabama has not.

What is the guest passenger statute? As a very simplified explanation, the guest passenger statute often allows a negligent driver to escape responsibility for hurting his own passengers in a car crash. Passengers who are solely social guests in a car cannot sue their own driver for negligence.

Fortunately, the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute does have three big exceptions. I discussed those exceptions in my prior post. They are:

  • Passenger For Hire / Transporting For Payment. Of course, the guest passenger statute does not apply when you’ve actually hired a driver. But, many situations are not so clear. In many cases, the passenger did not outright hire a driver. But, the passenger did provide some tangible benefits to the driver. In my earlier post, I discussed the case of Hurst v. Sneed where the driver and passenger were friends. The two were going to the store. The passenger was on the trip to help the driver with shopping and errands. On one hand, that sounds simply like two good friends out for a ride. But, on the other hand, the driver was receiving actual benefits from the passenger to complete necessary shopping. Because the trip benefitted the driver, the guest passenger statute did not apply. Little facts make all the difference.
  • Reckless / Wanton Driver Behavior. The statute does NOT apply when the driver’s behavior is actually reckless or wanton. That is, driver behavior beyond negligence. What is wanton or reckless behavior? As I discussed in my prior post, these are situations where the driver knew the risk of injury but chose to act anyway. Think of a driver who sees the red light but then chooses to run it. Think of a driver who chooses to drink and drive.
  • Protesting Driver Behavior. A passenger stops being a social guest when they become scared and ask the driver to stop his dangerous behavior.

If you want to know more about the guest passenger statute, check out my prior post. If you want to hear more about why I think this is such a bad law, I’m happy to discuss that as well. But, today, I’ll stick to some practical advice if you are a passenger injured in a car accident caused by your own driver. What are some tips to avoid the guest passenger statute where your presence in the car benefitted the driver?

The Insurance Company WILL Likely Deny The Claim Based Solely On Your Status As A Passenger

Let’s start with this. As soon as the insurance adjuster learns you were a passenger, he is likely to deny your claim. That’s all the reason (even when totally wrong) he needs. Many adjusters figure you will likely not pursue a claim once denied. And, many adjusters also know that most settlement mill lawyers will run from these cases because they require work. So, the adjuster decides simply to deny the claim.

Maybe the adjuster will later change his mind. But, typically these cases require a lawsuit. If you suffered a serious personal injury as a passenger, talk to someone who understands this law and how to build a case. If you are seriously injured as a passenger, you may be better off not talking to the adjuster until you get good legal advice.

Some Tips To Start Building Your Personal Injury Case

My first tip relates to the insurance company. I mentioned it in the last paragraph. Insurance companies often deny passenger claims without considering any of the details. Adjusters simply use the guest passenger statute as a convenient denial excuse. If seriously hurt in this situation, I would talk to a lawyer before dealing with the insurance company. Let a skilled lawyer handle the issues. Don’t give the insurance company advance time to prepare for your likely case.

The rest of my tips relate to proving that you were more than solely a social guest in the car. They relate to proving you provided the driver a real benefit. How do you do this?

Look for proof of any payments. Did you help pay for the car? In many situations, a friend or relative will provide some of the car purchase money in exchange for future transportation. I’ve had several cases where this occurred. If you helped pay for the car, you may have a cancelled check or other proof of your contribution. Did you help pay for gas, repairs or vehicle maintenance? If you provided any financial benefits to the driver, you may have cancelled checks, credit card records, or other receipts, which show your financial contributions. This evidence can easily establish your claim as an exception to the statute.

While records are fantastic, they are not required. I am currently working on a car accident case where the passenger gave her boyfriend money so he could purchase a car. In exchange, he promised to provide her with transportation. He did. Unfortunately, the passenger in this case provided cash. But, she can still testify to it.

Talk to the driver and witnesses. What will the driver say? In many cases, the driver thinks his or her insurance company should have covered the passenger. The driver is more than happy to testify that he received a real benefit from the passenger. In other cases, friends and family can also testify to the tangible benefits the passenger provided the driver.

Review the trip details. Where were you going and why? I’ll use one of my prior cases as an example. The driver and passenger had a baby together. They agreed to co-parent. As part of that agreement, the child’s mother routinely rode with the father to important events. They both rode together to benefit significantly each other. What was the purpose of the trip where you were hurt? Were you providing a benefit to your driver?

How should you handle a situation where you were a passenger who suffered personal injury because of your own driver? Don’t accept the insurance company’s blanket denial. Talk to a lawyer who understands these cases and the key facts that make a difference. Finally, work hard with your lawyer to gather key facts about the full relationship and how you benefitted the driver. This law is unfair. In many cases, you can still make a claim.

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From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm handles serious personal injuries across Alabama. If you have questions, let us know. We are happy to discuss your legal issues.

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