Elderly Man Sued by Passengers of the Thief Who Stole His Car

George Hinnenkamp was probably not having a very good day. The 89 year-old left his house to travel to nearby Lorane Valley, Oregon one day in June 2009. When he returned home later the same day, he found that his 1991 Thunderbird was not where he left it. He reported it stolen to the police and, at 10:30 p.m., learned from them that the person who took his car had crashed it while under the influence of alcohol. The car thief, 35 year-old Joseph Dinwiddie, had done occasional odd jobs for Hinnenkamp in the past. As attorneys, people often ask us if they can be sued for one thing or another. As this case demonstrates, people can file lawsuits against almost anybody, but the case must have merit to survive.

Prosecutors charged Dinwiddie with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and two counts of third-degree assault for injuries sustained by two passengers, Nicole Annette Cunningham and Delano Oscar. Dinwiddie’s defense largely relied on the fact that the elderly man had given him permission to drive the Thunderbird in the past when he was working for Hinnenkamp. He argued that he had Hinnenkamp’s permission to use the vehicle the night of the accident. He told police at the time of the accident, however, that he did not have permission from Hinnenkamp, and evidence indicated that the two passengers knew he was intoxicated, even drinking while driving. Dinwiddie was convicted and is now serving a 25-month prison sentence.

The saga did not end there for either Hinnenkamp or Dinwiddie. Two years later, in the summer of 2011, both of them were sued by the two passengers, Cunningham and Oscar, for the injuries they claim to have sustained in the crash. Cunningham is seeking $145,000 and Oscar is asking for $75,000 in damages. Oscar alleges that he suffered various “sprains or strains” in his neck, back, and elsewhere. Cunningham alleges similar injuries, plus pelvic fractures, headaches, dizziness, and more. Their arguments appear to rely on the claim that, since Dinwiddie had driven Hinnenkamp’s car with Hinnenkamp’s permission while working for him in the past, Hinnenkamp could be held liable for Dinwiddie’s actions while driving the car. Hinnenkamp’s insurer stepped in on his behalf and asked the court to declare that he has no liability for the injuries claimed by the plaintiffs.

Generally speaking, a person is not liable for damage caused by their property when someone else has stolen it. This may not apply in the case of inherently dangerous products, but the law tends not to consider a car that dangerous. Hinnenkamp may appear as a more attractive defendant for the plaintiffs, since he is not currently incarcerated and might have the ability to pay a settlement or judgment. His liability for the accident is very far from clear, especially since a verdict from a criminal court has held that Dinwiddie criminally lacked permission to use the car. Even the fact that Dinwiddie worked for Hinnenkamp in the past is of questionable relevance, since he would have to be driving while on a job for Hinnenkamp before any liability would attach.

The Maryland accident injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen are skilled at pursuing justice for people injured in automobile accidents on Maryland roads. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Up to 25% of US Car Crashes Caused by Distracted Driving and Gadget Use, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, July 12, 2011
Looking for Ways to Decrease the Number of Maryland Car Crashes Caused by Drunk Drivers, Maryland Accident Law Blog, January 31, 2011
Owing Mills, Maryland Car Accidents Can Cause Hard to Detect Soft Tissue Injuries, Maryland Accident Law Blog, January 25, 2011
Photo credit: ouchie 🙁 by rick, on Flickr.

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