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TN Court: Person who left keys in car responsible when it gets stolen


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TN Court: Person who left keys in car responsible when it gets stolen

by Jeff Glucker (RSS feed) on Dec 14th 2010 at 7:01PM


Do you occasionally leave your keys in the car? We all have at one point, be it just running in to the ATM or stopping by a friend's house to drop off a borrowed tool. In that short time you are out of the vehicle, it's quite possible that someone could be watching and take off with your wheels. Since the new "owner" probably doesn't care too much about your vehicle and may be trying to escape from the authorities, it isn't too hard to see how the stolen vehicle could end up in a collision or as the focal point of a tragic accident. If all of the above happens and you live in Tennessee, then prepare to have your cash reserves depleted.

A suit was brought against a man who left his keys in his car, which was promptly stolen and then collided with another vehicle causing injuries to three passengers. Initially, the lawsuit was filed against the city of Murfreesboro and its police department– however, that suit was dismissed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. But the court is allowing the suit against the owners of the vehicle to continue.

"Negligence" is the Word of the Day for Rubye Jarrell, the registered owner of the car and grandmother to Joseph D. Ash Jr., who apparently left the keys inside. According to the appeals court, it does not matter if the keys were in the ignition or somewhere in plain sight, Jarrell is still liable.

What do you think – should Jarrell be deemed negligent and face legal consequences? Have your say in Comments.



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Eh, I can see both sides here. Is TN a comparative responsibility state? If so, this makes perfect sense. If not, then I gotta give a side-eye.

Comparative responsibility: in a civil suit, when you're suing for damages NOT for actually committing a crime, the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal trial. Instead of "guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt" it is "guilty of being negligent by a preponderance of the evidence." Some states allow comparative negligence, in which multiple parties are fractionally responsible for some part of the damages against the innocent victim(s).

When viewed through this legal lens, and not through that of a sensationalist journalist, this story makes more sense and seems much more reasonable.

Let's put it this way: the car thieves are guilty of the crime of auto theft, but the owner is not. However, the innocent victims injured in the crime are rightfully questioning the vehicle owner's negligence for leaving his keys in his car in out in plain sight. The question for the court to decide is to what degree did the vehicle owner's negligence contribute to the crime. Would this crime have occurred had the keys not been in the car? Did the owner's negligence facilitate the crime (albeit unintentionally)?

In other words, how much of a contributing factor was the vehicle owner in this? In a comparative negligence state, the judge will then decide what percentage of the overall award is paid to the crash victims by the thieves and/or the vehicle owner. Of course, the vehicle owner can always sue the thieves in civil court as well for any damages he received as part of the theft. So this may all end up being an academic debate in the grand scheme of things.

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