Why a Jeep owner is sued after dealership employee was killed during oil change

When a man took his Jeep to Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge on March 13, 2020, it was for a routine oil change. But an employee died after another employee - who couldn't drive a stick shift - got behind the wheel to move the Jeep and hit and killed the first employee

Two years later, an attorney for the man who died isn't suing the other worker or the dealership; he's suing the man who owned the Jeep. The man who was waiting in a lobby. The man who was just there for a routine oil change. As it turns out, this is the law and this story is about to get complicated.

The employee, Jeffrey Hawkins, was a married 42-year-old, father of four, and a lifelong mechanic. He worked at Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge and was killed that March day by another employee who was driving the Jeep. 

"He starts the engine, removes the clutch, and then a terrible thing happened - the car lunched and killed my client," said attorney David Femminineo.

MORE: Why teen who disengaged clutch wasn't charged or sued after Jeep crushes mechanic

The unnamed Jeep owner could be held liable for millions of dollars in damages because, under Michigan law, if someone is injured or killed and a vehicle is involved, the owner of the car is responsible.

That means if you let your friend drive your car and they hit someone or something, and that victim sues, they would be suing you and your insurance.

Why is the owner responsible?

"We can't (sue the dealership) because of a legal standard that is involved," said attorney David Femminineo.

So what is this legal standard? There are multiple factors at play here and we're going to try to explain them as best as possible.

In Michigan, an injured coworker cannot sue the boss because of the boss' negligence. According to FOX 2's Charlie Langton, in this case, the boss is negligent because they hired someone who didn't know how to drive a stick and didn't even have a driver's license.

So even though the boss was negligent is hiring someone who shouldn't have been driving, the victim's family cannot hold the boss responsible.

Instead, the remedy for the victim's family is to seek out worker's compensation, which they have. 

Under worker's compensation, Hawkins' family will receive wages and medical based on his dependents and how much he made at the time of his death. 

However, there are multiple wrinkles here. Because Hawkins' death involved a car, there is a statute known as the owner's liability statute that means the owner of the car is legally responsible. 

If the owner gave permission to the driver to drive the car, the owner is negligent. When the Jeep driver gave his keys over to the employee who was driving, he gave permission to the employee to drive the car. This makes the owner legally responsible and is automatically liable for the driver's negligence.

According to Langton, it would be the same if you took your car to a restaurant with a valet and you handed the keys over. Under state law, if the valet driver injures someone with your car, you are responsible.

The law is called vicarious liability and means the owner is automatically liable for the negligence of the driver.

Under the law, Hawkins' family's only remedy is to seek worker's compensation because he was injured and ultimately killed on the job. That prevents the family from being able to sue the boss - despite the boss being clearly negligent, Langton says.

"The owner of the car is always responsible for the negligence of the driver, even if the owner doesn't know the driver," Langton said.

What can the Jeep owner do? 

Separately from the lawsuit from the Hawkins family, the owner of the Jeep has some options too. He can and has sued the dealership for indemnity.

Indemnity means that, if the judge rules against the car owner, the dealership would pay the balance. 

In that separate lawsuit, a judge has ruled that the dealership must provide indemnity for the Jeep owner. But even that is tricky. 

Now that the dealership has been ordered to provide indemnity, the attorney for the dealership is representing the Jeep owner in the trial. 

The dealership is going to appeal the indemnity ruling.

If the Michigan Court of Appeals rules that the original judge's decision on indemnity was incorrect, the Jeep owner would be responsible for the financial payout owed to the family if the judge rules in favor of the Hawkins family.

How much is the family suing for?

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Femminineo, is for $15 million. The insurance company of the Jeep owner has already paid out $100,000. If everything stands as it is now, with indemnity in place and the jury awards the family the full sum, the dealership would be responsible for the remaining $14.9 million. 

However, there's another catch. Worker's compensation also has a stake in this as they've already paid out some funds to the family.

Worker's compensation has a lien on the outcome of the trial and, regardless of the ruling, worker's compensation would be owed the money that has already been paid out.

If indemnity is overturned, the owner of the Jeep would be fully responsible for the money awarded to the Hawkins' family. 

On Wednesday, FOX 2 reached out to the car owner's attorney - but he had no comment on pending litigation, other than to say he's going to fight this case in a trial at the end of May.  

"When you hand your car over to anybody including the valet or the person at the service desk at your local dealership, you better be able to trust that person," the attorney said.