According to a recent Dutchess County Supreme Court decision, rental car companies do not have a duty to conduct an investigation into a potential customer’s driving record beyond establishing that they have a valid driver’s license.

In Poluzzi v. Mojica, Defendant, ELRAC, Inc. d/b/a Enterprise Rent a Car Company (“Enterprise”), rented a vehicle to Defendant, Miguel Mojica.  Prior to renting him the vehicle, Enterprise’s employee reviewed Mojica’s driver’s license and verified its validity by comparing the license’s photo to Mojica and observing that the license had yet to reach its expiration date.  Mojica confirmed that the license was valid on the rental agreement, which expressly forbids operating the rental vehicle while impaired by alcohol.  Mojica was not on Enterprise’s “no rent list” and did not appear intoxicated at the time of rental.  Unbeknownst to the employee, however, Mojica had previously been convicted of DWAI (driving while ability impaired).  One week later, Mojica drove the vehicle through a red light and struck a police car driven by Plaintiff, Officer Richard Poluzzi, causing catastrophic physical injuries.  Mojica’s blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit and he was convicted of two counts of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol.   

Poluzzi sued both Mojica and Enterprise, claiming that Enterprise had a legal duty to conduct a more extensive background check of Mojica prior to renting him the vehicle.  

The Graves Amendment prevents rental car companies, such as Enterprise, from being held liable for the conduct of its customers based on the theory of vicarious liability.  See 49 U.S.C. 30106.  The Amendment, however, will not prevent a rental car company from being held liable for its own negligence.  See Collazo v. MTA-New York City Transit, 73 AD3d 642, 643 (1st Dept. 2010).

Poluzzi claimed Enterprise negligently entrusted the vehicle to Mojica.  In order to establish negligent entrustment by a rental car company, a plaintiff must show that the company had some special knowledge concerning a unique characteristic or condition of the renter which renders that person’s use of the vehicle unreasonably dangerous.  See Palacios v. Aris, Inc., __ F.Supp.2d __; 2010 US Dist. LEXIS 22984 (EDNY, March 11, 2010). At the time of the rental, however, Mojica’s license was valid, he represented that the license was valid, he was not listed on Enterprise’s “no rent list,” and he showed no signs of physical impairment.  As such, Enterprise had no knowledge of any unique characteristic which rendered his rental unreasonably dangerous.  See id.  

Acting Supreme Court Justice Charles D. Wood declined to impose Poluzzi’s proposed duty, finding that, while a rental car company has a duty to ensure that a potential renter has a valid driver’s license prior to renting a vehicle, once the validity of the license is determined, the company does not have a further duty to conduct a more comprehensive investigation into the renter’s driving record.  Enterprise’s motion for summary judgment was granted.

For more information contact Christopher Renzulli.