NILSA RODRIGUEZ v. MARK J. TESTA et al., SC 18389

Judicial District of Waterbury

 

Vicarious Liability; Federal Preemption; Whether Federal Law Preempts State Law That Makes Owners of Commercially Leased Vehicles, Which are Not Insured for a Certain Amount of Liability Coverage, Vicariously Liable for Incidents Involving their Lessees and Leased Vehicles; Whether 49 U.S.C. 30106 is a Valid Exercise of Congressional Power Under the Commerce Clause. This matter stems from an automobile accident involving the plaintiff's vehicle and a vehicle operated by Mark Testa. Testa's vehicle was not insured at the time of the accident and was leased from DaimlerChrysler Financial Service America Trust (DCFS). The plaintiff commenced this action alleging, among other things, that the collision was caused by Testa's negligence and that DCFS, as the owner of Testa's vehicle, was vicariously liable for Testa's negligence pursuant to General Statutes 14-154a. Section 14-154a, with certain exceptions, imposes vicarious liability upon the lessors of motor vehicles for the tortious conduct of their lessees. An exception to vicarious liability applies if, at the time the damages are incurred, the leased vehicle is insured for bodily injury liability in amounts of not less than $100,000 per person and $300,000 per occurrence. DCFS moved for summary judgment, arguing that 49 U.S.C. 30106 preemptively eliminates the vicarious liability imposed by 14-154a. Section 30106 of title 49 of the United States Code provides in relevant part: "An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person . . . shall not be liable under the law of any State . . . by reason of being the owner of the vehicle . . . for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of rental or lease, if (1) the owner . . . is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and (2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner. . . ." It further provides: "Nothing in this section supersedes the law of any State . . . imposing liability on business entities in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles for failure to meet the financial responsibility or liability insurance requirements under State law." In opposition to DCFS's motion, the plaintiff argued that since 14-154a imposes liability on owners of commercially leased vehicles who fail to maintain a minimum amount of insurance coverage on their vehicles, 49 U.S.C. 30106 does not supersede 14-154a in this instance because DCFS did not maintain that coverage. In the alternative, she argued that 49 U.S.C. 30106 is unconstitutional because Congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause when it enacted the statute. The trial court granted DCFS's motion for summary judgment, concluding that in the absence of negligence or criminal wrongdoing, as in the present matter, 49 U.S.C. 30106 overrides 14-154a. Moreover, it determined that Congress did not exceed its authority under the commerce clause in enacting 49 U.S.C. 30106. It reasoned that since leased vehicles may be driven across state lines, Congress has the right to adopt laws regulating them. In this appeal, the Supreme Court will determine whether the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of DCFS.