Being involved in a car wreck that was not your fault is no picnic, but most people can rest assured that the other driver’s insurance will pay for their damages and losses. But what if you are a passenger in another person’s car, and they cause an accident? If you suffer injuries, it stands to reason that they, or their insurance company, would be responsible for those damages. However, a law called the “Alabama Guest Statute” may actually bar you from financial recovery.
Although most states repealed these types of laws years ago, Alabama’s Guest Passenger Statute still stands, and causes a lot of headaches for passengers seeking compensation for their injuries after a car accident.
What is the Guest Passenger Statute?
Under Alabama Code 32-1-2, a passenger (or “guest”) is prohibited from bringing a claim against a driver for injuries sustained in a wreck, unless the driver willfully or intentionally operated the vehicle in a way to cause those injuries. “Guest” means you were riding with the driver without payment, as opposed to a taxi or rideshare. Note that payment does not necessarily mean cash – anything that would benefit the driver may be considered payment.
Passed during the Great Depression, these laws are mostly a result of insurance company lobbying to protect themselves and drivers from frivolous litigation or collusion. The majority of other states in the country have repealed these laws, (rightly) believing them antiquated. Motorists owe a duty of care to everyone on the road – including their passengers. Under the Guest Statute, however, drivers may be relieved of liability, even in accidents they cause:
The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest while being transported without payment therefor in or upon said motor vehicle, resulting from the operation thereof, unless such injuries or death are caused by the willful or wanton misconduct of such operator, owner, or person responsible for the operation of the motor vehicle.
If you are injured as a passenger in a car wreck, however, you are not out of options.
Are there exceptions to the Alabama Guest Statute?
When injured as a passenger by an at-fault driver here in Alabama, you may find your claim denied by the insurance company. However, that does not mean you should give up hope. An experienced attorney can work to appeal your claim, as well as explain the exceptions to this law and discover if they apply to your case:
- Reckless and/or wanton behavior. The Guest Statute does not apply in cases where the driver was intentionally irresponsible; i.e., they knew of the risk and took it regardless. Examples of this might include a driver causing a crash by texting behind the wheel, trying to beat a yellow light, or driving while intoxicated.
- Transported with payment. The statute applies to guests traveling without payment, which means social guests only. Even if you are not paying the driver cash for a ride, it does not necessarily mean you are barred from a claim. For example, in the Alabama Supreme Court case Hurst v. Sneed, a passenger suffered injuries during a trip to the store with a neighbor. Because the passenger was specifically on the trip to assist the driver with shopping and errands – which benefitted the driver – under the statute, she was not barred from filing a claim for damages.
- Protesting the driver’s behavior. A passenger may no longer be considered a “guest” when they are fearful of the driver’s actions and asks them to slow down or stop the vehicle. When a passenger protests a driver’s behavior, the driver’s liability protection is removed. As a passenger, if you feel you are in physical danger, make a forceful protest and leave the vehicle as soon as you are safely able to. Use your cell phone to your advantage; both to record evidence of your protest and to call authorities or friends to pick you up.
The Guest Statute also does not apply to passengers on a business trip or venture, or to young children and other individuals unable to consent to their guest status in a vehicle.
Unfortunately, until this law is changed or repealed, passengers must protect themselves. Just because the insurance company initially denies your claim, it does not mean you have no recourse in seeking compensation for your injuries and losses. Working with an attorney who understands Alabama law can help you resolve your claim.
At Martin & Helms, our Huntsville personal injury attorneys can help when you’re hurt in a car accident. We work to secure compensation for your pain, injuries, and losses, and hold the at-fault driver accountable for their negligence behind the wheel. Contact us at your convenience to schedule your free consultation in our Huntsville or Decatur offices. Call 256-539-1990 or reach out to us through our contact form. We proudly serve clients throughout North Alabama, including in Madison and Athens.
Choosing the right personal injury attorney is an important step in building a better future. You deserve a lawyer who works one-on-one with you, and who can develop a plan for you to move forward. When you choose Martin & Helms, you get Clay Martin and Tara Helms: experienced, compassionate counselors who put your best interests first. We invite you to read more about us.