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By: Edward Storck
In Kyle McCall v. Gina Sopneski, et al, 202 Conn. App. 616 (2021), the appellant, Kyle McCall, sought review of the trial court’s decision granting the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by appellee, Reynold’s Garage & Marine, Inc. on the grounds that Reynold’s Garage was immune from suit pursuant to the dealer plate statute, Connecticut General Statutes §14-60.
The underlying lawsuit involved a claim by McCall against Reynold’s Garage and Gina Sopneski, a customer who was loaned a motor vehicle by Reynold’s Garage while her vehicle was in for repairs. Sopneski struck plaintiff while he was riding his motorcycle, causing significant injuries with damages well in excess of Sopneski’s personal auto policy. McCall brought suit against Reynold’s Garage pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 14-154a, which creates vicarious liability for motor vehicle lessors. At the trial court, summary judgment was obtained on behalf of the dealership pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 14-60, which grants immunity for dealers who loan motor vehicles or dealer plates to customers while the customer’s vehicle is being repaired and the dealership obtains proof of insurance from the customer.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued the trial court got it wrong by concluding that there was no question of fact that the transaction was a loan and not a rental. He argued that the agreement between the dealer and its customer was titled “Rental Agreement” and used the word “rental” approximately 27 times throughout the document, the document itself was titled “Rental Agreement.” McCall argued that a jury should have been allowed to decide what type of transaction was involved. Reynold’s Garage argued that Connecticut General Statutes §14-60, as interpreted by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Cook v. Collins Chevrolet, Inc., 199 Conn. 245 (1986), provided immunity from such suits under the facts of the case.
In affirming the trial court’s decision, Judge Nina Elgo, held that the trial court properly concluded there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the dealership was entitled to the immunity provided by § 14-60. Judge Elgo held that the plaintiff’s position that § 14-60 applies only to the lending of motor vehicles that have dealer plates affixed was untenable in light of the plain language of the statute encompassing situations in which a dealer lends either a dealer vehicle, a dealer plate, or a dealer vehicle containing a dealer plate. Thus, the fact that the motor vehicle operated by the tortfeasor had a vanity plate rather than a dealer plate did not operate to preclude the application of § 14-60. Moreover, the court held that regardless of the label on the agreement between the dealership and the tortfeasor, the essence of the transaction was a loan, as the motor vehicle was given to the tortfeasor for temporary use and the tortfeasor was not charged a fee for the use of the motor vehicle. In the decision, Judge Elgo found that the decision in Cook v. Collins Chevrolet, Inc., to be instructive in resolving the claim. The underlying facts in Cook involved the lending of a dealer plate and not a vehicle. Judge Elgo’s decision expands on the decision in Cook, by finding that §14-60 did not only apply when a dealer plate was loaned to a customer, but also when a vehicle is loaned to the customer. The court further found that despite the agreement being labeled a rental agreement, the essence of the transaction made it clear that the transaction involved a loan and not a rental. The court found that the title of the document was not what determined the type of transaction involved.
Since Cook, there have been a number of superior court decisions interpreting Cook which either granted Motions for Summary Judgment pursuant to Cook or found differences between the specific facts of the case and the facts in Cook, such that they denied similar Motions. The decision of the Court of Appeals in McCall, has essentially consolidated many of those superior court cases which found there was immunity into one succinct decision.
Moreover, this decision has now extended immunity to dealerships in cases where the dealer vehicle loaned to the customer bears a vanity plate rather than a dealer plate. There does not appear to have been any case law on this particular issue. Further, the Appellate Court’s decision makes it clear that the title of the document used by the dealership was not necessarily determinative of the transaction. While this issue was raised in a prior superior court case, there was no appellate level decisions on this point. This is significant where many dealerships are required to use form documents created by the automobile manufacturers and the dealerships do not have a say on the language used in the agreement. In this case, there would have probably been little issue had the agreement used not have been called a “Rental Agreement.”
For more information, please contact Edward Storck at [email protected].