Guest Statutes

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Widely adopted in the 1920s and 1930s, guest statutes were state laws that strictly limited liability in car accidents. These laws curtailed the legal rights of "guests"—nonpaying passengers such as friends or neighbors—who brought lawsuits against drivers after being hurt. Generally speaking, they prevented guests from suing car drivers or owners except in cases of a very high degree of negligence. Mere ordinary carelessness was an insufficient ground for a suit: if a guest was injured when a driver momentarily failed to pay attention and crashed the car, most states would reject a lawsuit. The net effect of guest statutes was to protect drivers and insurance companies while leaving injured passengers, for the most part, out of luck. Constitutional challenges to the laws frequently appeared in state and federal courts throughout the middle of the twentieth century, but courts waited until the 1970s and 1980s to begin narrowing and ultimately striking down the statutes in wholesale numbers.

The first guest statutes appeared in 1927, in Connecticut and Iowa (1927 Conn. Pub. Acts 4404, ch. 308, § 1 [repealed 1937]; Iowa Code Ann. § 321.494 [Supp. 1983]). Coinciding with a burst in manufacturing that increased the number of automobiles produced, the laws arose to meet the growing number of suits resulting from car accidents. By 1939, the last year in which a guest statute was enacted, thirty-three states had such laws or court precedents of comparable effect. The rationale behind the statutes was that a driver's liability should be limited: mere carelessness was seen as so commonplace that drivers in all accidents would be held liable for hurting their passengers were that the standard. For an injured passenger to surmount the barriers of a guest statute, greater evidence would have to be shown. A lawsuit would have to prove that the driver's actions were much more than careless—that they were grossly or willfully negligent. Other states went further, setting the standard as willful or wanton mis-conduct. In essence, little short of an utter disregard for safety or a desire to run someone off the road would hold up in court in a civil suit.

Thus, in one typical 1943 case, the Iowa guest statute prevented a passenger from recovering for injury. On May 30, 1942, a four-door Plymouth carrying five teenagers along a narrow, twisty gravel road went out of control, hit a bridge, and turned over. Driving was seventeen-year-old Fabian Gehl. Seconds before the accident, Gehl had leaned over to pick up a cigarette from the floor of the car. John Neyens, an eighteen-year-old passenger who was injured in the accident, sued Gehl. Under the guest statute, Neyens had to convince a jury that Gehl's behavior was reckless. At trial, the jury ruled in favor of the defendant, finding that reaching down for a cigarette, smashing the car into a bridge, and rolling it over was something short of reckless. On appeal, Neyens lost again (Neyens v. Gehl et al., 235 Iowa 115, 15 N.W. 2d 888 [1944]).

Over the years, guest statutes caused considerable controversy. When they were defended at all, it was to argue that they were needed to prevent drivers and passengers from colluding to bring fraudulent claims against insurers. Critics took a different tack: they argued that guest statutes unfairly protected drivers and insurance companies, while leaving injured passengers and the survivors of dead passengers with no compensation for their losses. The distinction between paying and nonpaying passengers seemed arbitrary: why should friends given a ride in a car be unable to recover damages when, for example, commuters riding in a bus were able to do so? In many states, even cattle being transported to market enjoyed greater legal protection than a guest in a car. But such arguments fell on deaf ears for many years. As early as 1929, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to a guest statute on due process grounds (Silver v. Silver, 280 U.S. 117, 50 S. Ct. 57, 74 L. Ed. 221), and as late as 1977, it refused to hear another challenge because it did not pose a substantial federal question (Hill v. Garner, 434 U.S. 989, 98 S. Ct. 623, 54 L. Ed. 2d 486 [mem.]).

Nonetheless, the death knell for guest statutes began in the 1970s. As the concept of liability evolved, state legislatures began providing other means for passengers to seek compensation, and a few repealed their guest laws. Reacting to these changes, courts began to carve out exceptions in existing guest statutes, and ultimately to overturn the laws on constitutional grounds. Thus, the Supreme Court of Utah said, when striking down Utah's guest statute in 1984, "The original scope of the guest statute has been substantially narrowed, and its application to any particular guest is both problematic and irrational" (Malan v. Lewis, 693 P.2d 661). By 1996, only Alabama still had a guest statute (Ala. Code § 32-1-2).

further readings

Appendix E: Letter from Friedrich K. Juenger to Harry C. Sigman, Esq., September 16, 1994. 1995. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law (May).