Personal InjuryMassachusetts Statute Helps Plaintiffs Prove Fault Through Car Registration But Does Not Change Requirement of Proving Elements of Claim Following Car Crash

May 3, 20170

According to Massachusetts law, in an injury claim following a car accident, evidence that the car involved in the collision was registered to the defendant is prima facie evidence it was being operated and controlled by someone for whom the defendant was legally responsible.  At issue in an appeal before a Massachusetts appellate court was how much weight to afford this statute in proving negligence, particularly when the registered owner of a car involved in a crash had granted permission to the driver to use the car. The court held that permission did not mean that the owner had the right to control the driver’s use of the car, especially when she was completing personal errands.

In a collision that was determined at trial to be an accident and not to have involved the negligence of the defendant, the lower court found the owner of the vehicle involved was not responsible for property damage.  Here, the driver had struck the plaintiff’s traffic signal and arm while borrowing the defendant’s car to run personal errands.  According to the trial court, the car owner had not allowed the driver the use of the car, but his brother had done so.  The lower court found that the driver had not been acting as the agent of the car owner, nor was she advancing his interests at the time of the collision. The lower court entered judgment for the defendant, the owner of the car.


On appeal, the plaintiff argued that Massachusetts law holds a registered car owner responsible for the operation of that vehicle. As a matter of prima facie evidence, the plaintiff argued, the defendant cannot overcome the effect of the statute. According to the plaintiff, the defendant had provided the driver with permission to operate the vehicle, and the cause of the accident had been the driver’s negligence.

The court stated that the law at issue, General Laws c. 231, s. 85A, is remedial. The intention of the statute is to help plaintiffs prove that at the time of an accident, the driver had been acting on behalf of a vehicle owner.  Once the evidence shows that the defendant owned the vehicle, the burden of persuasion shifts to him to prove he was not legally responsible for the driver’s conduct.

On appeal, the court stated that permission does not equal agency. Here, the plaintiff relied on the statute and the defendant’s admitted permission to the driver to use the vehicle.  But the evidence did not show that the driver had been acting as the defendant’s agent.  Simply because there was a stipulation that the driver had been operating the car with permission “adds nothing” to the operation of the statute, according to the court.

The court stated that the statute does not change the substance of the law concerning negligence.  In fact, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the statute essentially makes a vehicle owner liable for accidents involving their vehicle.

According to the court, the defendant maintains their right to counter evidence. In this case, the driver’s actions would be attributed to the defendant only if, when the accident occurred, he had the legal right to control her conduct.  In fact, the issue was whether the owner had the authority, rather than whether he exercised control over the driver’s conduct.  One consideration is who benefited by operating the vehicle, and in this case, the driver was visiting family and going shopping.

Looking at the trial court decision, the court stated that it is the burden of the plaintiff to show that the trial court findings cannot be supported by a reasonable view of the evidence. Next, turning to the elements of a negligence claim, the appellate court stated the plaintiff here had not presented evidence the driver had been speeding, had disobeyed traffic signals, or had failed to exercise reasonable care.

The appellate court affirmed the trial judgment in favor of the defendant.

After a vehicle collision, Massachusetts law provides a means for victims to seek compensation from an at-fault party.  At the Law Office of Michael O. Smith, we make it a priority to aggressively advocate on behalf of individuals and their families pursuing personal injury claims for monetary damages caused by an accident.  To schedule a complimentary consultation with a skilled Boston car accident lawyer, phone our office at (617) 263-0060 or complete our online form.

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