Contributory Negligence of a Passenger
This case arose out of an automobile accident in which Plaintiff Sam Taylor (Taylor) was injured as a result of the alleged negligent driving by Defendant Tina Coats (Coats). Taylor and Coats were involved in a romantic relationship at the time of the accident.
Following the accident, Plaintiff Taylor filed a negligence action against Coats for injuries sustained during an accident in which Taylor was a passenger in Coats’ vehicle. Defendant Coats’ answer asserted a defense of contributory negligence. The Defendant then moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion. It is from the order granting the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment that the Plaintiff appealed.
The evidence presented tended to show that Taylor and Coats had been involved in a relationship for around eleven months prior to the incident. On the day of the accident, the pair was celebrating Taylor’s birthday at Shooters, a bar in Johnston County, and started drinking alcohol at approximately 3:00 p.m. Around 10:00 p.m., after plaintiff became angry that defendant was talking to another man, the couple decided to leave and spend the night at the hotel across the street from Shooters. After pulling out of the parking lot, and while Defendant was stopped at a stop light waiting to turn left, Defendant thought the light turned green and proceeded to make a left turn. However, Defendant turned in front of an oncoming car, which collided with her vehicle. After the accident, a breathalyzer test was administered to Defendant, and she blew a .18, more than double the legal blood alcohol level limit of .08.
According to case law, “a guest in an automobile may assume that the driver will use proper care and cuation while operating the vehicle until he has a reason to believe otherwise.” Dinkins v. Carlton and Williams v. Carlton, 255 N.C. 137, 140 (1961). However, when a passenger rides in a vehicle driven by a person whom he knows or should have known to be a careless or reckless driver, the passenger may be contributorily negligent as a matter of law. Id. To establish contributory negligence of a passenger who voluntarily agrees to ride in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver, the following elements must be shown: “(1) the driver was under the influence of an intoxicating beverage; (2) the passenger knew or should have known that the driver was under the influence; and (3) the passenger voluntarily rode with the driver even though the passenger knew or should have known that the defendant was under the influence.” Coleman v. Hines, 133 N.C. App. 147 (1999).
The North Carolina Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment to the Defendant. The Court found that the evidence presented was sufficient to establish that the Plaintiff knew or should have known of the Defendant’s impairment at the time of accident. Taken literally, it is common knowledge for a reasonable person to understand that alcohol consumption affects the ability of that person to drive. State v. Purdie, 93 N.C. App. 269 (1989).
The Court also noted that the smell of alcohol was noticeable after the accident, according to the investigating officer, and that plaintiff should have noticed that smell. Plaintiff also had reason to know of defendant’s intoxication, as they had been patrons in the bar for about seven hours. The Court found all of this evidence indicated that Plaintiff voluntarily rode with defendant, knew of defendant’s intoxication, yet nevertheless decided to ride in Coats’ vehicle as a passenger.
The key to this case was the evidence which showed Plaintiff’s actions met all the evidence for contributory negligence, in regards to riding with an intoxicated driver. This essentially means that in North Carolina, if the driver you decide to ride with is exhibiting outward signs of inebriation (glossy and/or red eyes, stumbling, slurred speech, etc.) you may likely be barred from any recovery action against the driver if you are injured in an accident caused by the driver.