A recent incident in St. Joseph raises an important question in personal injury law: How does proximate cause work when a car was stolen?
Car Theft Leads to High Speed Chase and Gunfire
Last week, a St. Joseph man reported to police that his car had been stolen from the Speedy’s Convenience Store on St. Joseph Avenue. An hour and a half later, though, he saw his car being driven by someone else. Presuming the driver was the thief, the owner pulled out a gun and began firing.
This led to a high speed chase before the other driver fled on foot. The owner fired more shots, hitting the presumed thief and another vehicle, nearby.
Proximate Cause and Stolen Vehicles
A lot happened in less than two hours, here. While some of the more interesting questions – like whether the owner has the legal power to take “self-help” measures to recover his vehicle, up to and including the use of deadly force – are a matter for criminal law, personal injury law aims to hold people responsible and liable for the losses and injuries they have negligently caused to other people.
A relatively rare, but still very important, issue is when a car gets stolen. Some states hold the vehicle’s owner responsible for a subsequent car accident if the owner negligently allowed the theft by, for example, leaving the keys in the ignition. These states hold that the owner’s negligence set in motion the chain of events that led to the accident. Furthermore, they hold that the owner’s negligence was the proximate cause of the accident – it was not so far removed from the resulting crash that it would be unfair to hold the owner responsible.
Thief’s Bad Driving is a Superseding Cause in Missouri
As we discussed in an earlier blog post, though, in Missouri, car owners are rarely held liable after a theft.
Unlike many other states, Missouri has long refused to extend liability to the car’s real owner when someone steals the vehicle and crashes it. In the 1955 case Gower v. Lamb, a Missouri appellate court decided that the negligent driving of the thief was not foreseeable to the owner of a car who negligently protected it from getting stolen. The thief broke the chain of events between the owner and the eventual victim: By stealing the car and driving it poorly, the thief assumed all responsibility for a crash.
While the car’s owner did behave negligently, Missouri sees the thief as a superseding cause of a crash, effectively replacing the owner’s negligence as its ultimate cause.
St. Joseph Car Accident Lawyers at the Smith Law Office
Missouri’s rule concerning stolen vehicles ends up hurting the victims of the crash: They often have serious injuries that the thief’s insurance will not cover because they were the result of a crime. In Missouri, these victims cannot turn to the car’s owner for the compensation they need.
The rule is also on some unsure footing: Is it really unforeseeable for an unsecure car to get stolen, and then for the thief to drive fast and put others at risk while they try to get away?