Graves Amendment in New York

The federal statute, known as the Graves Amendment, was enacted on August 10, 2005, and " bars vicarious liability against professional lessors and renters of vehicles" as would otherwise be mandated by Vehicle and Traffic Law 388. (See Graham v. Dunkley, 50 AD3d 55, 57, 852 NYS2d 169 [2d Dept 2008].) Vehicle and Traffic Law 388 provides in relevant part that "[e]very owner of a vehicle . . . shall be liable and responsible for death or injuries to person or property resulting from negligence in the use or operation of such vehicle, in the business of such owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of such owner." (Vehicle and Traffic Law 388 [1].) The term "owner" includes "any lessee or bailee of a motor vehicle . . . having the exclusive use thereof, under lease or otherwise, for a period greater than thirty days." (See Vehicle and Traffic Law 128, 388 [3].) The Graves Amendment provides in pertinent part: " 30106. Rented or leased motor vehicle safety and responsibility "(a) In general.--An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if-- "(1) the owner (or an affiliate of 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 (or an affiliate of the owner)." The statute defines the terms "affiliate" and "owner" (see 49 USC 30106 [d] [1],[d] [2]. In Hall v. Elrac, Inc. (52 AD3d 262, 859 NYS2d 641 [1st Dept 2008]), the First Department agreed with the Second Department that the Graves Amendment does not violate the Commerce Clause (see Hall v. Elrac, Inc., 52 AD3d at 262), and also rejected an argument that "the Graves Amendment violates equal protection by favoring car rental companies over other vehicle owners, such as taxi owners, repair shop owners who provide loaner vehicles to customers, and car dealerships that allow test drives, who also allow others to operate their vehicles" (see id.). The opinion cannot be read as a holding, or even dictum, that the Amendment does not apply to the described activities, but must be read as holding that, if the statute does distinguish between "renting of vehicles" and "these other activities," it is constitutional (see id. at 262-63). It is not clear, moreover, that the First Department used "repair shop owners" to include lessors and renters. In Murphy v. Pontillo (12 Misc 3d 1146, 820 NYS2d 743 [Sup Ct, Nassau County 2006]), Supreme Court denied the defendant car dealer's motion for dismissal based upon the Graves Amendment because there was insufficient evidence, among other things, "regarding the making and terms of the purported lease" so as to allow the court to find "it is the type of lease or rental agreement subject to the Graves Amendment." (See Murphy v. Pontillo, 12 Misc 3d at 1148.) The court noted a lack of proof that the user "ever paid for the use of the vehicle, and thus there is a question of whether he just borrowed it, which would arguably make the Graves Amendment inapplicable." (Id.) Again, there was no holding or dictum that the Amendment does not apply to "loaner" vehicles. The Second Department's ruling in Dunne v. Lloyd (40 AD3d 685, 834 NYS2d 864), involved a vehicle "loaned" to the driver by a dealer "pursuant to a Subaru service loaner program owner/rental agreement" (id. at 686. The appellate court affirmed summary judgment against the dealer "on the ground that, as the owner of the vehicle operated by [the driver], it was vicariously liable for the driver's negligence," citing Vehicle and Traffic Law 388. (See id.) The court also cites the Graves Amendment, with a "cf." direction, noting it is "applicable to actions commenced on or after August 10, 2005," and Jones v. Bill (34 AD3d 741, 825 NYS2d 508 [2d Dept 2006]), which determined when an action would be deemed "commenced" for purposes of the Amendment. (See id.) It is arguable that the citation to the Graves Amendment suggests that a different result would have obtained had the Amendment been applicable to the action under review, but the citation might only signal the Amendment's effect on Vehicle and Traffic Law 388 when the Amendment is applicable.