What is the Guest Passenger Statute?
Did you know in Alabama, if you are a passenger in someone's vehicle and they cause an accident, you may not be able to recover for your damages? Well that is the effect of the Guest Passenger Statute.
According to Alabama Code § 32-1-2: "The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest while being transported without payment therefor in or upon said motor vehicle, resulting from the operation thereof, unless such injuries or death are caused by the willful or wanton misconduct of such operator, owner, or person responsible for the operation of the motor vehicle."
This goes in direct opposition to our normal thought process about a motor vehicle accident. Typically, if someone causes an accident as a result of negligence, the people they injure would have a right to recover for their injuries and damages. However, Alabama's legislature decided that riding as a guest in someone's vehicle should be an exception to this general rule. As a result, unless the driver of the vehicle you are riding in was acting in a willful or wanton manner when causing the accident.
So what is willful or wanton conduct? "A plaintiff's showing of 'wanton misconduct' requires more than a showing of some form of inadvertence on the part of the driver; it requires a showing of some degree of conscious culpability." George v. Champion Ins. Co., 591 So. 2d 852 (Ala. 1991). Evidence of willful or reckless conduct could include: excessive speed, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving under the influence of drugs (including a prescription if it affects driving), driving erratically, or some other action that amounts to knowledge and consciousness that injury is a likely result.
So, if the person you are riding with causes the accident but the driver's actions don't amount to willful or wanton conduct, is there any other way to recover? If you are merely riding with the person as a guest, sadly, there is not. However, if you have given the person gas money, exchanging this ride for another ride later, or are exchanging some service for the ride, then you can still recover. If there has been some exchange between the driver and passenger, then they are no longer considered a "guest" under the meaning of the statute.
As a kid, my mother was aware of this statute and used to make me give other kids I rode with gas money for every trip. This never felt necessary to me as a kid, but my friends always appreciated the help on gas. Little did either of us know that I was preserving my right to bring a claim against their insurance if they caused an accident while I was in the car.
This is an old and antiquated law that needs to be revisited by the legislature and removed from our books. It is my understanding that Alabama is the last state in the Union with this law. Preventing individuals from recovering from their injuries from the at-fault party isn't a good policy regardless of if the at-fault party is the driver of their vehicle or some other vehicle.
My firm has experience dealing with the pitfalls of the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute; if you have been injured in an accident that was caused by the driver of the vehicle you were in, send me an email or give me a call for a free consultation. I would be happy to assist you in navigating the treacherous waters of litigating this type of claim.