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Motor Vehicle Law: Superior Court strikes vicarious liability claims for common law and statutory recklessness

The present action arises out of a motor vehicle collision allegedly caused by the defendant while operating a vehicle owned by one of the defendants within the general scope of his authority to do so. The prayer for relief claims double and treble damages as to several of the counts asserting vicarious liability on behalf of the non-driver defendants for the recklessness of the driver. The defendants now move to strike those claims for relief as they are legally insufficient, arguing that owner/non-operators of motor vehicles cannot be held vicarious liable for the reckless operation of their motor vehicle and therefore cannot be held for statutory double or treble damages under punitive damages.

In review of the defendant’s motion to strike, the court must decide: if Connecticut General Statutes § 52-183, pertaining to vicarious liability of a principal for the actions of their agent, applies to claims to recover damages for negligent or reckless conduct, why should a plaintiff be barred from recovering punitive damages from the defendant’s principal as well? As to the relationship between common law and § 52-183, the court finds that at common law, there is no vicarious liability for punitive damages and thus, under common law, the owner of a vehicle cannot be vicariously liable for punitive damages for the reckless operation of the vehicle by its drivers and § 52-183 was not intended to change that.

Therefore, the complaint does not allege any of the conditions precedent to holding the defendant vicariously liable under the common law for the driver’s alleged reckless operation of a motor vehicle, which makes those counts legally insufficient. The court goes on to address vicarious liability for statutory recklessness under Connecticut General Statute § 14-295. Under § 52-295, “in any civil action to recover damages resulting from personal injury, wrongful death or damage to property, the trier of fact may award double or treble damages if the injured party has specifically pleaded that another party has deliberately or with reckless disregard operated a motor vehicle in violation of section 14-218a, 14-219, 14-222, 14-227a, subdivision (1) or (2) of subsection (a) of section 14-227n or section 14-230, 14-234, 14-237, 14-239, 14-240a or 14-296aa, and that such violation was a substantial factor in causing such injury, death or damage to property.”

The court states that had the legislature intended to break with the common law and extend liability for reckless operation of a motor vehicle vicariously to owner/non-operators then, presumably, it would have said so. But the legislature did amend § 14-295 to add the sentence “the owner of a rental or leased motor vehicle shall not be responsible for such damages unless the damages arose from such owner’s operation of the motor vehicle.” The court then asks the question, “doesn’t that amendment evince the intent of the legislature to otherwise hold principals vicariously liable for double and treble damages under § 14-295 for harm resulting from their agents’ deliberate operation or operation with reckless disregard of a motor vehicle in violation of one or more of the statutes enumerated therein?”

The court explains that there remains a split of authority on this issue, but that this court looks at the plain meaning of § 14-295 and concludes that the better authority aligns with answering that question in the negative, finding claims for vicarious liability under § 14-295 to be legally insufficient. Therefore, the court grants the defendant’s motion to strike because the plaintiff claims of vicarious liability under § 14-295 for the driver’s alleged reckless operation of the vehicle are legally insufficient. Caouette v. Stewart, KNL-CV22-6056426S, 2023 WL 3597449 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 18, 2023).