It is well known that Syracuse, Auburn, Geneva and other upstate New York cities are aging. Young people don’t stay because jobs are not easy to find here. As a result, the average age of people in cities like Syracuse, Auburn and Geneva is rising. We are getting old! And we’ve all heard those stories about elderly drivers who just should not be behind the wheel anymore and who end up causing terrible car accident injuries, for example, bowling down a bunch of pedestrians on a sidewalk, or crashing full speed into another car in the oncoming lane, or something like that.
Assume an elderly driver causes such a car accident in New York State. Assume further that the car the elderly driver was driving does not carry enough liability insurance to pay for all the personal injuries the elderly driver caused. What then? Is there anyone else to sue? What about the State of New York for having renewed the elderly person’s driving license? What about suing the family of the elderly driver for having allowed him or her to drive?
I’ll get to the answers in a minute. Bear with me. First I want to tell you why this topic is on my mind. I went for a ride with my 82 year-old mom the other day. She drove. My dad is the same age, but because of a stroke he had a few years ago, he no longer drives. My mom seems to drive just find, at least I thought so. But a day or two later, a friend told me that he was driving behind an elderly lady in Skaneateles, Onondaga County (where my mother lives) who looked very confused. She was at an intersection and was braking off and on, with no turn signals on, but then suddenly turned left, then pulled over. My friend then recognized the driver to be my mother.
I don’t know if I believe him. I asked my mom about it, and she says she was nowhere near where this allegedly confused elderly driver was. Maybe he mistook that driver for my mother.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the United States has 30 million licensed drivers ages 65 or older. This is 18% more than only a decade ago. As our population ages, so does the average age of our drivers. If the elderly are disoriented, have poor eyesight, slow reactions, cognitive impairment, or physical impairments, they are more likely to cause accidents. But that’s not all; older drivers are more likely to die in a car accident than younger ones. Drivers ages 80 and older have a higher “crash death rate” per mile than any other driving group, except teen drivers.
So what if my friend is right, and that confused elderly driver was my mother? The smart thing to do would be to have a doctor evaluate my mother for driving ability. But what if I don’t? What if I do nothing? Can I be sued if she ends up crashing into another car or bowling over some pedestrians?
No, I can’t. I am not liable for my mother’s actions in New York. Sure, I can be held liable if I gave her my car to use. That would be, among other things, what we lawyers call “negligent entrustment of a dangerous instrument.” But otherwise, I am not legally responsible for failing to stop my elderly mother from driving.
What about suing the State of New York for renewing her driving license last year? Fat chance. There is a doctrine of law well ingrained in New York called “governmental immunity” which presents insurmountable barriers to such a suit.
So who to sue? Sorry to say you are stuck with suing my mom and, if someone else owned the car, that person, too.
But just because I am not LEGALLY required to stop my mom from driving when I see she presents a danger to others does not mean I am not ETHICALLY required to do so. I hope I will have the courage to convince my mother to stop driving when the time comes, if it comes . . .