On a humid night in Birmingham, Hannah climbs into Jacob’s Acapulco blue 1969 Ford Mustang. It’s their 2nd date, and Jacob is going to take Hannah to see a movie at the AMC Summit 16.
On the way to the theater, Jacob, distracted by the car’s stereo system, accidentally runs a stop sign and is broadsided by a cargo van.
Hannah suffers severe injuries from the car crash. She will require months of physical therapy and will never regain the use of her right arm.
Hannah files a lawsuit against Jacob to recover her medical expenses.
The court rules that Hannah is not entitled to recover any damages under Alabama law because she was a guest in Jacob’s vehicle.
Does this sound unfair?
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at Alabama’s strict guest passenger statute.
What is the Alabama guest passenger statute?
Alabama’s guest passenger statute (sometimes more simply called Alabama’s “guest statute”) can be found in Section 32-1-2 of the Alabama Code.
The statute essentially says that an individual who operates a vehicle is NOT liable for the injuries sustained by a non-paying passenger unless the passenger can prove that the crash resulted from willful or wanton conduct on the part of the driver.
What constitutes willful or wanton conduct depends on the facts of the case, but it’s important to understand that such conduct is different from mere negligence.
Negligence is usually characterized as inattention, thoughtlessness or lack of due care. On the other hand, willful and wanton conduct both require some degree of conscious culpability. To put it another way, the driver must be aware of their conduct and the fact that their conduct will likely result in injury.
Consider the following 2 examples:
In the 1st example, John is merely negligent. He didn’t intend to run the stoplight, but he did so as a result of his inattention. Under Alabama’s guest passenger statute, Susan cannot sue John for damages.
In the 2nd example, John’s actions were willful or wanton. He intended to drive the wrong way in the opposite lane, and he knew his actions could cause serious injuries. Under Alabama’s guest passenger statute, Susan can sue John for damages.
What is the purpose of Alabama’s guest passenger statute?
Guest passenger statutes were enacted across the United States in the 1920s and 1930s (Alabama’s guest statute was adopted in 1935) to curb the rising number of car accident lawsuits.
Essentially, careless accidents were seen as so commonplace in the 1920s and 30s that legislatures believed allowing passengers to file lawsuits for mere negligence would result in the courts becoming overwhelmed, particularly as more and more vehicles were being manufactured.
The practical impact of guest passenger laws was that drivers and insurance companies were largely protected, while passengers and their families were left with no compensation for their losses.
Most guest passenger statutes were repealed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Shockingly, Alabama is the only state that still has a guest passenger statute.
Am I out of luck if I’m injured in a car crash as a passenger in Alabama?
If you’re injured in an Alabama car crash as a passenger, you may still be able to receive compensation for your injuries—although you should strongly consider hiring an attorney.
You may be able to receive compensation if you can prove the driver’s conduct was willful or wanton or if you can prove that someone else was at least partially responsible for the accident (for example, another driver, a pedestrian or the municipality that failed to maintain the road).
What’s more, you may be able to receive compensation if you can establish that the driver received some benefit for giving the ride (whether it’s money or even something less tangible).
Finally, depending on the facts of your car accident, you may be able to file a lawsuit in a different state where the guest statute doesn’t apply.
The bottom line is this: If you’re injured as a passenger in an Alabama car crash, you face an uphill battle to recover damages. However, you shouldn’t give up all hope. Consider scheduling a free consultation with an Alabama car accident attorney near you today.