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John Inserra
John Inserra
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An issue of vehicle ownership and negligent entrustment

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The Nebraska Supreme court cleared up the issue of ownership requirements and the negligent entrustment of a vehicle involved in a motor vehicle accident in the case of Richard A. DeWester, Personal Representative of the
Estate of Lindsay DeWester, deceased, appellant, v. Kyle W. Watkins, an individual, appellee.

In a nutshell, the Court held:

Based on the Restatement’s reasoning, most courts have
framed the relevant issue in a negligent entrustment case as
whether the defendant in a negligent entrustment action had the
right to control the entrusted property, with ownership simply
being one way of proving a right to control. As the Illinois
Supreme Court explained, “entrustment must be defined with
reference to the right of control of the subject property. In
essence, if the actor does not have an exclusive or superior
right of control, no entrustment of the property can occur.”16 A
right to control does not always mean ownership, but generally
means that the defendant must have a greater right of possession
or control than the entrustee.

A defendant’s ownership of entrusted property is not a prerequisite
to liability for negligent entrustment.

Factually, this is a case where the parents allowed their son to drive the family vehicle owned by the parents. The son allows an underage, possibly intoxicated, teenage friend to operate the vehicle. Unfortunately, she rolls the vehicle and is killed. This action is brought by the estate of the teenage driver claiming negligent entrustment of the vehicle. The only defense to the appeal of a summary judgment is that the son did not own the vehicle and under prior Nebraska law could not be held to have negligently entrusted the vehicle to another. The Court overruled cases to the contrary, making it clear that the real determination is control and not ownership, and did not rule on the issue of contributory negligence under the comparative negligence statute , as it was not before it. So the Court reverses and remands for further proceedings.