When you take your car in to a dealer for service, you don’t generally expect to end up as the target of a lawsuit because it killed someone while you weren’t even there. Unfortunately, that seems to be what happened to the owner of a Jeep in Michigan, according to a Fox 2 Detroit report on Wednesday.
The story of how all this came to be: Reportedly, a vehicle owner brought his 2019 Jeep Wrangler into his local dealership — Rochester Hills Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge — for a simple oil change in 2020. This oil change was being performed by two techs, one of whom — a teenager without a valid driver’s license — got in the vehicle while it was running. The Jeep had a manual transmission and was parked in gear, and when the tech accidentally stepped off the clutch, it caused the Jeep to lurch forward and hit the second tech, Jeffrey Hawkins. Hawkins was killed. Hawkins’ family held the dealership responsible for the incident.
Here’s where things get complicated. In Michigan, there are laws on the books that prevent employees (and by extension, the families of employees) from suing their employer or a fellow employee over workplace accidents. Further, there is another law that specifically prevents a car dealership from being held liable for the actions of individuals authorized by a customer to drive their vehicle.
So, that leaves Hawkins’ wife and children in a pickle. Enter lawyer David Femminineo, who suggests that they target the vehicle’s owner as a proxy, which will then put the dealership in a position to have its insurance company pay out to the family if a court rules in its favor. A trial is set to begin on May 20; Hawkins’ family is seeking $15 million in damages.
We spoke to the attorney, and while this all seems sort of roundabout and even a little extreme, he explained that this lawsuit process is very similar to what would happen if you gave your keys to a valet parking attendant and then that attendant injured someone with your car. Personally, I think that if a family is forced to sue a vehicle owner to be appropriately compensated for a workplace death because laws are set up to protect employers more than employees, then maybe the laws should be reevaluated.
We asked Rochester Hills Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge for comment, but didn’t hear back in time for publication.