January 20, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Age of Rental Car Driver Inconclusive to Support Tort Claims Against Rental Company

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Amparan v. Lake Powell Car Rental Companies on February 13, 2018.

Edmundo and Kimberly L. Amparan appeal from the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Lake Powell Car Rental Companies on the Amparans’ claims for negligent entrustment and loss of consortium. The claims arose from a vehicle accident involving a motorcycle operated by Mr. Amparan and a Ford Mustang rented by Lake Powell to Denizcan Karadeniz and operated by Mevlut Berkay Demir. Because the Amparans failed to come forward with evidence from which the jury could find an essential element of their claim for negligent entrustment, the appeals court affirmed.

On July 14, 2014, a group of Turkish nationals, including Mr. Karadeniz, visited Lake Powell to rent two vehicles. Mr. Karadeniz produced a valid Turkish driver’s license and a valid credit card. Mert Tacir, another member of the group, produced a valid Turkish driver’s license. The owner and operator of Lake Powell, Paul Williams, asked the remaining individuals in the group if they possessed valid driver’s licenses. Mr. Demir responded that he possessed a valid driver’s license. At the time of the rental, all three individuals were 21 years old. Although Mr. Williams recognized that Mr. Karadeniz and Mr. Tacir were under the age of 25, he nonetheless agreed to rent to rent a Dodge Caravan and a Ford Mustang to Mr. Karadeniz and to permit Mr. Tacir as an additional authorized driver for the Ford Mustang. None of the other members of the group, including Mr. Demir, completed an “Additional Driver Application/Agreement.” However, Mr. Demir testified that he understood Mr. Williams’ inquiry into whether he possessed a driver’s license as a signaling that he had Lake Powell’s implicit permission to operate the vehicles. Because a reasonable jury could adopt Mr. Demir’s understanding, the Tenth Circuit proceeded under the assumption that Lake Powell implicitly entrusted the rental vehicles to Mr. Demir. Evidence in the record supports the conclusion that Mr. Williams’ decision to rent two vehicles to an individual under the age of 25 and to permit an additional driver under the age of 25 violates internal policies propagated by Lake Powell’s licensor, Avis Rent A Car Systems, LLC.

During the course of the rental, Mr. Demir operated the Ford Mustang. Mr. Demir, unfamiliar with the traffic rules governing left turns at intersections, turned left on a solid green light without yielding to oncoming traffic. Mr. Amparan, traveling in the oncoming direction, unsuccessfully attempted to swerve to avoid hitting the turning vehicle operated by Mr. Demir and the two vehicles collided. As a result of the collision, Mr. Amparan alleges he suffered multiple broken bones, a punctured lung, and various other injuries.

The Amparans filed complaint in New Mexico state court, naming Mr. Demir, Mr. Karadeniz, and Avis as defendants. Avis removed the action to federal court, where, after an initial round of discovery, the district court granted the Amparans leave to amend their complaint to add Lake Powell as a defendant. The amended complaint raised claims against Lake Powell for negligent entrustment, loss of consortium, and negligent supervision and training. Lake Powell moved for summary judgment, arguing, in part, that even if it implicitly entrusted the Mustang to Mr. Demir, it neither knew nor should have known that Mr. Demir was likely to operate the vehicle in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others. In response to Lake Powell’s motion for summary judgment, the Amparans filed a notice of testifying expert on both the risk posed by young drivers and standards of care in the car rental industry. The Amparans also contested Lake Powell’s motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that Lake Powell’s violation of internal policies regarding renting to, or approving as additional drivers, individuals under age 25 constituted sufficient evidence to permit the finding that Lake Powell knew or should have known that Mr. Demir was likely to operate the Ford Mustang in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.

The district court indicated it would not consider factual assertions in the Amparans’ response to summary judgment that did not comply with District of New Mexico Local Rule of Civil Procedure 56.1(b) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c)(1)(A). The district court denied Lake Powell’s motion to strike as moot. The district court deemed the motions to strike moot based on its conclusion that the Amparans’ evidence regarding Lake Powell’s alleged violation of internal policies was insufficient, on its own, to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that Lake Powell knew or should have known that Mr. Demir was likely to operate the Mustang in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others. The district court concluded that the disputes of fact with respect to whether Lake Powell entrusted the Mustang to Mr. Demir and whether Lake Powell violated any internal policies were not material because resolution of the disputes in favor of the Amparans did not alter the summary judgment decision.

On appeal, the Amparans argued that the district court failed to perform a proper analysis, in that a New Mexico court would view evidence of a violation of internal policies, which are also allegedly industry standards, sufficient to advance a claim for negligent entrustment. Alternatively, the Amparans urged the Tenth Circuit to address the merits of Lake Powell’s motions to strike. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Lake Powell on the Amparans’ claims for negligent entrustment and loss of consortium.

In an effort to overcome the extensive body of case law supporting the conclusion that the New Mexico Supreme Court would reject the proposition that evidence of a car rental company’s violation of internal policies is sufficient to establish the third element of a claim for negligent entrustment even where the entrustee possesses a valid driver’s license, the Amparans argued that their expert witness would testify on car rental industry standards regarding rentals to individuals under age 25. But the fact that evidence of a violation of an internal policy is probative on the question of negligence does not establish that the evidence is sufficient to make out a prima facie case of negligence. It cannot be said that the driver’s young age, on its own, makes it likely that the driver will cause an accident, will operate the vehicle in an incompetent manner, or will operate the vehicle in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others. For, if such were true, no individual in New Mexico could grant a person under the age of 25 permission to drive a vehicle without facing liability for negligent entrustment based solely on the entrustee’s youthful age.

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit held that the New Mexico Supreme Court would conclude that evidence of a car rental company’s violation of internal policies on the minimum age of renters and drivers is, on its own, insufficient to establish the third element of a claim for negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle. Thus, the Amparans failed to advance sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case of negligent entrustment.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Lake Powell on the Amparans’ claims for negligent entrustment and loss of consortium.