Getting Around the Graves Amendment

Most people move a lot, and even a local move may cost several thousand dollars. To save money, many people rent U-Hauls and other moving trucks. Drivers normally need commercial licenses to operate these vehicles. But most truck rental establishments only require standard drivers’ licenses. As a result, serious U-Haul truck crashes are rather common.

The negligent entrustment doctrine normally applies in such situations. This rule allows New York personal injury attorneys to pursue damage claims against vehicle owners if they allow incompetent drivers to operate their vehicles. This doctrine is normally rather straightforward. But commercial negligent entrustment cases work a bit differently because of the Graves Amendment.

Lawmakers added 49 U.S.C. 30106 to a large transportation bill. This provision gives companies like U-Haul and Enterprise immunity when they rent vehicles to incompetent drivers who cause crashes. But like many other policies, the Graves Amendment is poorly drafted and full of holes. In fact, the two ways to beat the Graves Amendment are in the law itself.


The “Not Otherwise Negligent” Requirement

Immunity only applies if the owner or agent was not negligent or otherwise irresponsible in renting the vehicle. People with safety-suspended licenses are usually incompetent as a matter of law, and people with very poor driving records may be incompetent as well.

In 2005, this issue was not a problem. Back then, there was no way to remotely and quickly verify a drivers’ license or inspect a driving record, especially if the person had an out-of-state license. So, a visual inspection was sufficient.

But technology has advanced a lot since then. For example, back in 2005, everyone had cellphones which were like tin cans on a string compared to today’s smartphones. Advancing technology makes it much easier to remotely verify driving records and drivers’ licenses. Today, such verifications are arguably the industry standard. Violating an industry-standard is essentially negligence.

To evaluate this evidence, most New York County courts use a multi-layered approach. As mentioned, if the person had no valid license, that driver is usually incompetent no matter how much experience s/he had behind the wheel. Other evidence of incompetency, in descending order of strength, includes:

  • Prior safety suspensions,
  • Several at-fault collisions,
  • More than one recent moving violation, like speeding or unsafe lane change, and
  • Remote at-fault collisions or moving violations (i.e. more than a few years ago).

The type of vehicle is relevant here as well; a person may be competent to drive a Toyota but incompetent to drive a commercial-size moving truck.


The “Trade or Business” Requirement

Graves Amendment immunity also only applies to companies which are in the “trade or business” of renting vehicles. Since the law does not define this important phrase, attorneys must look elsewhere.

The Uniform Commercial Code, which is used in many tort and contract actions, defines “merchant,” a similar term. According to Section 2-104, a merchant is “a person who deals in goods of the kind or otherwise by his occupation holds himself out as having knowledge or skill peculiar to the practices or goods involved in the transaction.” This definition usually does not apply to U-Haul owners. 

For the most part, these companies are not vehicle rental establishments. They are moving supply and storage companies which have a few trucks on the lot. A convenience store may sell mostly beer and wine, but that does not make it a liquor store. It is still a convenience store.

Additionally, the clerks who work at these establishments have no special knowledge about the trucks they rent. For the most part, they only know how to drive the vehicle. They know nothing about an engine’s torque capacity or any other key figures.


Connect with an Assertive Attorney

Despite the Graves Amendment, traditional negligence rules usually apply in commercial vehicle rental claims. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in New York, contact Michael J. Redenburg, Esq. P.C. We routinely handle matters in Kings County and nearby jurisdictions.