THE UNJUST DANGERS OF THE ALABAMA GUEST STATUTE
Alabama motorists need to be aware of a truly peculiar and unjust law in this state that applies when a driver is giving a ride to someone. It is called the Alabama Guest Statute, and in most circumstances a passenger cannot sue the driver of a vehicle for injuries received in an accident when driver was “negligent.” Negligent driving is defined as operating the vehicle in a manner that is not reasonable or prudent under the circumstances. Most common acts of negligence are failure to keep a lookout (frequently causing rear-in accidents), failure to yield right-of-way to oncoming traffic, inadvertently running stop signs or red lights, following too closely, and moderate speeding.
Under the Alabama Guest Statute, a normal passenger can sue a driver for injuries received in an accident only for “wantonness.” Many people use the term “reckless driving,” but wantonness is more accurately defined as “acting with a conscious disregard for the safety of your actions.” The most common examples of wantonness are driving at a high speed, driving intoxicated, racing, road rage, and purposely running stop signs and red lights. With heightened awareness of distracted driving created by electronic devices, some judges allow plaintiffs to argue in court that driving while texting also rises to the level of wantonness.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NEGLIGENCE AND WANTONNESS IS VERY IMPORTANT BECAUSE THE VAST MAJORITY OF AUTO ACCIDENTS INVOLVE SIMPLE NEGLIGENCE AND THE DRIVER MAY BE ABLE TO ESCAPE RESPONSIBILITY UNDER THE ALABAMA GUEST STATUTE.
The Alabama Guest Statute is based on the theory that the law keeps drivers and passengers from colluding on phony lawsuits, and that it encourages drivers to be hospitable and generous in offering rides by protecting them from lawsuits. Modern legal thinkers consider these ideas to be very outdated, especially in this day and age when states like Alabama require all drivers have automobile insurance. Almost every other state has either refused to adopt such a laws or has removed them from their state statutes. Illinois, Indiana, and Nebraska have versions of a guest statute, but they are very limited.
Alabama is the only state with such a broad protection of irresponsible drivers. The injustice of Alabama’s law is obvious. A driver can be sued for negligence in causing damage to your personal property but is shielded from responsibility for negligence when a passenger is injured or even killed. Over 85 years ago, an Alabama judge noted that a basket of apples in the backseat of someone’s car has greater rights than a human being riding in the same seat. Wurtzburger v. Oglesby, 222 Ala. 151, 131 So. 9 (1930).
There are, of course, exceptions to the Alabama Guest Statute, and they revolve around whether the passenger is deemed a “guest” under the law. The most common exception available to passengers is where they can argue that they are passengers “for hire” rather than a guest. This means some compensation has been paid to the driver, therefore removing the driver from the statute and allowing him or her to be sued for negligence. “For hire” is not limited to formal carriers such as taxis, buses, or Uber; anybody can be a passenger “for hire” if they give some compensation to the driver.
The most common type of compensation is paying a driver for providing a ride or paying for the driver’s fuel. But the compensation paid to the driver does not necessarily have to be in the form of money. For example, if the driver is giving the passenger a ride someplace where the passenger is going to perform some favor for the driver, the passenger is deemed “for hire.”
Another exception occurs in the situation where the passenger protests the behavior of the driver. A passenger may not be considered a guest when the passenger is scared of the way vehicle is being driven and makes a protest to the driver to slow down or stop the vehicle. Ignoring the protests of a passenger can remove the protection of the guest statute from the driver. However, the passenger must take advantage of a chance he or she has to leave the vehicle when the opportunity is available. Staying in the car after having a chance to leave may not give the passenger the exception of a protest.
So, if you are a passenger in a vehicle driven in Alabama you should take note of the following considerations:
- Pay the driver for the ride, pay for the driver’s gas, or perform some sort of favor for the driver’s benefit in order to make yourself a passenger for hire.
- If you are afraid of the way the driver is operating the vehicle, make a forceful protest that the driver stop the vehicle to let you out. Having a cell phone with you will provide a great advantage. First, you can use it to record the protests you made while in the vehicle. Second, the cell phone will allow you the greater convenience of immediately calling friends or family to pick you up if you have to exit the vehicle.
Yes, these considerations appear drastic, but Alabama is the only state in the country that protects drivers from responsibility for their negligence when passengers in their vehicles are injured or killed. Alabama has been slow to remove this poorly-reasoned and unjust law from its books, and the citizens of Alabama must take steps to protect themselves until modern legal thinking and common sense prevail.