Passenger Liability in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, as in all states, the driver of a motor vehicle owes a duty of reasonable care to third persons whether they are other operators, persons walking on the sidewalk, or passengers in the driver’s vehicle. It makes sense to impose this duty on the person behind the wheel who is in control of the vehicle. However, there are also situations in which a passenger in a vehicle can be held liable for accidents and injuries caused by the vehicle’s operation.

One such circumstance is familiar to all persons who drive. In Massachusetts, by statute, a driver with a learner’s permit must be accompanied by a licensed driver who is 21 years old or older, who has at least one year of driving experience, and who occupies the front passenger seat. Less known, however, is that the same statute also states that “[s]uch licensed operator shall be liable for the violation of any provision of this chapter, or of any regulation made in accordance herewith, committed by such persons with a learner’s permit.” In other words, the licensed person in the front passenger seat is responsible for the operation of the vehicle and its consequences. The only exception made is for the registry examiner during a road test.

Another scenario in which a passenger can be found liable for the operation of a vehicle is much less common. Under Massachusetts law, a person can be held liable for harm resulting from the tortuous conduct of another if he “knows that the other’s conduct constitutes a breach of duty and gives substantial assistance or encouragement to the other.”  The doctrine may be applied where the facts “manifest a common plan to commit a tortious act where the participants know of the plan and its purpose and take affirmative steps to encourage the achievement of the result.”  Qualifying conduct might include incidents of road rage where a passenger counseled, supported or encouraged a driver’s reckless actions.  In one recent case discussing the doctrine, a driver and passenger engaged in harassing two brothers in another vehicle by repeatedly pulling up to it and then backing off,  swerving, and yelling threats. The conduct caused the brothers’ vehicle to veer off the road and crash into a tree, killing the passenger. In reversing the grant of summary judgment to the defendant passenger in the harassing vehicle, the Massachusetts Appeals Court found that the evidence, including the surviving brother’s testimony about the threats he heard and the defendant passenger’s own admission to yelling, supported the inference that the defendant passenger had engaged in a common plan to harass and frighten the brothers, and encouraged the driver’s tortious conduct by yelling threats at them. The court concluded that whether the defendant passenger’s conduct constituted substantial encouragement or was too slight to impose liability was a question of fact for a jury to decide.

Find out if you’re entitled to compensation for a personal injury claim by contacting Attorney Bob Allison.  You may call him at 978-740-9433 or fill out an online contact form.  We will set up a free consultation with you to discuss your case.