Liability for Stolen Vehicles with Keys in Ignition

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Keys in ignition stolen
Leaving your car running while not in it invites thieves to steal, and could result in a lawsuit against you.

With extreme temperature fluctuations occurring along the east coast, media outlets are reminding everyone that it’s illegal in South Carolina to leave your vehicle running unattended while warming it up. Although the law is not rigorously enforced in the state, violators can face a fine of up to $500.

Leaving your keys in an unattended vehicle is also an invitation for thieves. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported that in one year, 57,000 stolen vehicles had the key fobs inside. That is part of the driving force behind state laws on not leaving your car warming up with keys inside.

If your vehicle is stolen, what does that mean for you liability-wise? Are you on the hook for damages and injuries that the thief caused to another person while in possession of your vehicle?

Liability in South Carolina

In most instances, the answer is no. You won’t be responsible to anyone for damages and injuries that were sustained as a result of the thief getting into an accident after he  steals the vehicle. The typical exception to this rule of thumb is an instance where the theft was foreseeable or the person can show that they had your permission to use the vehicle.

Case Law on the Matter

This particular legal question has made it as far as the South Carolina Supreme Court. One of the main benchmark cases that helped develop this answer was Stone v. Bethea, 251 S.C. 157 (1968). In this case, Major Bethea owned and operated a laundry business in South Carolina. One night, Bethea picked up the clothes for cleaning and then headed to his business. He reached the business around 8:30 p.m. and parked his vehicle adjacent to the building. He got out, leaving the keys in the ignition, and went inside to drop off the clothes he had just collected.

Just after entering the building, he heard his vehicle engine start and saw someone driving it away. He flagged down a taxi and followed his stolen vehicle to about one mile outside of town, where the thief collided with another vehicle, driven by Carl Hall Stone. Stone’s attorney alleged that Bethea left his vehicle unattended, accessible to the public with the key inside, and therefore was negligent and the proximate cause of the injuries Stone sustained as a result of the thief’s actions.

Bethea’s attorney responded that the vehicle was stolen and the collision occurred thereafter, and the negligent act of the thief was the proximate cause. It was determined Bethea wasn’t negligent and the case was eventually appealed, landing in the Supreme Court which affirmed the lower court’s decision that Bethea was not at fault, nor was he the proximate cause of the accident.  In the published opinion, the justices noted that when, “between negligence and the occurrence of an injury, there intervenes a willful, malicious, and criminal act of a third person producing the injury, but that such was not intended by the negligent person and could not have been foreseen by him, the causal chain between the negligence and the accident is broken.”

Retaining a South Carolina Personal Injury Attorney

If your vehicle was stolen and subsequently involved in an injury accident, it’s important you retain a skilled South Carolina car accident attorney who can help protect your rights and ensure the injured party’s attorney doesn’t come after you for damages and injuries. Contact the Elrod Pope Law Firm to set up a consultation today.

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