In Alabama, the driver or owner of a vehicle is not responsible for death or injuries sustained to another person riding in the vehicle simply by virtue of ownership or the fact that he or she is operating the vehicle. The legislature enacted a law referred to as the “Alabama Guest Statute” that articulates this general rule of law. It does provide, however, exceptions to this rule.
Guest versus Passenger
The statute provides that the guest must be “transported without payment.” In general, Alabama courts have interpreted this to mean that the driver must not receive payment or benefit from the guest with regard to the circumstance in which they are traveling together. It cannot be considered an incidental benefit (like keeping the driver company). If the evidence shows that the driver/owner received payment or benefit (such as in a business situation), then the person can be considered a “passenger” and not a guest and the statute does not apply. The driver or owner can be subject to liability for death or injuries sustained.
Even though the courts have historically considered a “passenger” as one transported for hire or reward, the issue is one that is often litigated over with various factual situations being hard to define. There are a variety of situations where the line between a commercial and social relationship becomes blurred. Sometimes this requires a careful examination of the history of the relations between the driver and guest, as an arrangement can be considered both express and implied.
Another factor to consider is the consent of the guest. The statute only applies if the relationship between the driver and guest in consensual in nature. Some factual situations must be scrutinized to determine consent, including but not limited to: the age of the guest (minority) andmental capacity to consent. In addition, the consent must be proper. Evidence that the driver coerced or falsely induced a guest to ride in the vehicle may nullify the consent. An example of this would be a driver going to a different location than the guest expected and the guest opposing this action.
Willful or Wanton Conduct
The driver, owner or person in charge of operation of a vehicle can still be held liable to a “guest” or “passenger” if the 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. Willful or wanton conduct is generally a factual question for the jury, but usually encompasses an aggravated state of mind. This typically requires proof of an intention to act, or a conscious omission of duty, with knowledge or notice of the circumstances and a reckless disregard of the consequences.
The Guest Statute will not apply to abrogate claims of negligent supervision, even if the injuries sustained to a guest arose from a motor vehicle accident. In other words, if a driver or operator of a motor vehicle fails to supervise a victim (such as a child), they cannot simply avoid liability by claiming the Guest Statute applies.