When a Good Deed Goes Wrong: How A Volunteer Can Be Liable
When we are young, most of us are taught to be kind to others and lend a helping hand when possible. It is sound advice. We are also taught that if you are going to do something, do it correctly and to the best of your ability. Unforutenly, for the defendant in a recently decided New Jersey Appellate Division case, he did not heed that second lesson. His good deed ended up landing him in hot water.
Diaz v. Reynoso
The issues in Diaz v. Reynoso concern whether a volunteer "who assures police officers at a roadside stop of an apparently inebriated driver that he will take the driver and his car safely to a residence—but thereafter relinquishes the car to the driver before reaching that destination—can be civilly liable as a joint tortfeasor if the driver then collides with and injures another motorist." Diaz v. Reynoso, No. A-1285-20 (App. Div. June 1, 2021) (slip op. at 2)
On the night of September 22, 2018, defendants Herbert J. Reynoso and Angel Dominguez, accompanied by their friends Luis Gonzalez and Daniel Paredes, attended a rooftop party in Fort Lee. After leaving the party, the four men went to El Tango Argentina Grill in Englewood and stayed there until approximately 1:45 am. Defendant Reynoso had consumed at least two cocktails, a shot of tequila, and two beers at El Tango without eating any food. When they left El Tango, the group divided and Reynoso left, driving his own vehicle with Defendant Gonzalez as a passenger.
Shortly after leaving, Reynoso was pulled over by Englewood Police for driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street. The officer did not arrest Reynoso but instead asked him if someone else could drive him home. Reynoso called Dominguez, who was in another vehicle with Padres, and asked if he could come to pick him up.
When Dominguez and Padres arrived, Dominguez was briefed by the officer and told the officer that he would take Reynoso home. Dominguez drove Rynosos's car with Reynoso in the passenger's seat while Gonzalez went in the other vehicle with Padres. When they stopped at a railroad crossing, Reynoso demanded that he drive his car. Dominguez gave in to Reynoso's demands and allowed him to drive.
Around 2:40 am, the Paramus Police received emergency calls reporting a serious motor vehicle accident on Route 4 West. Upon arrival at the scene, officers began rendering medical aid to both the plaintiff (Diaz) and defendant Reynoso. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff allegedly sustained serious injuries.
In December 2019, Diaz filed a complaint in the Law Division seeking damages for injuries he sustained in the motor vehicle collision. He initially named as defendants: Reynoso; AWJ, Inc., doing business as El Tango; along with Police Officers Gallo and Porter and the City of Englewood ("the Englewood defendants"). He alleged each of the defendants had acted negligently in the events leading up to the accident.
After answering the Complaint and denying liability, Dominguez moved under Rule 4:6-2(e) to dismiss the allegations against him with prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Both the Englewood defendants and the plaintiff opposed the motion.
The trial judge granted the motion and dismissed the case against Dominquez, concluding that Dominquez did not have a legal duty to the plaintiff. The Engelwood defendants appealed the Order.
Appellate Division Holding
On appeal, the Appellate Division concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing the case against Dominquez. The Court held "that a volunteer who fails to discharge his commitment to the police that he or she will take charge of a person who appears to be unfit to drive and who thereafter willingly allows that visibly intoxicated motorist to resume driving can bear a portion of the civil liability for an ensuing motor vehicle accident caused by that drunk driver. The recognition of such a common law duty is consistent with the safety-promoting public policies set forth in John's Law and other drunk driving laws, as well as basic tort doctrines that disfavor negligent conduct by persons who agree to take care of a helpless individual."
The Appellate Division further stated, "If the drunk vehicle owner coerces the volunteer to return the vehicle, the obligation for the volunteer to act reasonably could encompass a duty to call 9-1-1 and advise the police that the impaired motorist has resumed driving." Diaz v. Reynoso, No. A-1285-20 (App. Div. June 1, 2021) (slip op. at 36-37)
By volunteering to help, you can create a duty of care that otherwise might not have existed. For example, assume that Dominquez had never answered Reynoso's phone call; he would not have had any liability for the accident.
Arguably, helping people in need is an integral part of being human. Refusing to help someone because you want to avoid liability is not the solution. Instead, when we volunteer to help someone, we must do it reasonably and responsibly. Had Dominquez called 911 or simply refused to let Reynoso drive, he would not have found himself as a defendant in this lawsuit, and the underlying accident might never have occurred.
It is one of the beautiful compensations in this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
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