Do Alabama “guests” have any rights if they are injured in a car wreck?

One summer Saturday night in Huntsville, Alabama, Bob and Ruth climb in Bobs’ car for a friendly drive to the movies.  Unfortunately, Ruth’s life soon changed forever when Bob runs a red light and his car is hit broadside by a pickup truck. Ruth suffers severe injuries from the automobile wreck.  She endures tremendous pain and suffering and mental anguish.  Her injuries are permanent.

To add insult to injury, when Ruth makes a claim against Bob’s automobile insurance company for the injuries she sustained in the wreck, they inform her that she is not entitled to recover under Alabama law because she was a “guest” in Bob’s vehicle.

The Alabama Guest Statute  prohibits a “guest” from bringing an action against a driver unless the driver is found to have willfully or recklessly operated a motor vehicle to the detriment of the “guest.”  The guest statute applies in situations where the injured person was riding as “a guest while being transported without payment.”  “Payment” does not necessarily mean cash for transportation as one would pay for a taxi ride.  “Payment” could be in the form of some material and tangible benefit to the driver from the transportation or the transportation must be of mutual benefit to both parties.

Although the Guest Statute typically prevents any claim against the driver of a motor vehicle for injuries sustained by a guest, damages may be recovered by a guest if the injuries are caused by the willful or reckless misconduct of the driver.  Typically, we are able to prove willful or reckless misconduct when there is evidence that the driver was operating his vehicle at an unsafe speed, was driving erratically, driving under the influence or was distracted while using a cell phone or texting.

Incredibly, Alabama is the only state left in the United State that has a Guest Statue.  All the other states have invalidated or repealed this antiquated law.  At present time, Alabama’s Guest Statute may still deprive persons injured in automobile accidents from receiving compensation.  For a brief time in prior years, our courts recognized this inequity and allowed “guests” who could not demonstrate that the driver acted willfully or recklessly to make claims under their own uninsured motorist policies.  However, in Ex parte Carleton, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed course thereby depriving injured “guests” of any claim for compensation.   In fact, the practical effect of this decision was to leave “guests” in a position where they are unable to insure themselves from the negligent conduct of a driver.   This is an injustice that can certainly be resolved by our legislature or addressed from a regulatory standpoint.  Any solution should promote the public policy of allowing responsible persons to use their own insurance to protect them in the event they are injured while riding as a “guest.”

Our personal injury firm deals with guest passenger cases on a regular basis.  Even though this statute needs to be revisited by Alabama law makers, we are still able to develop evidence that may allow for a recovery.  If you are injured in an automobile wreck and the insurance company raises the Guest Statute, you may still be able to recover if you contact us to discuss your case.