There is a presumption that a vehicle owner is responsible for the actions of a driver using the vehicle with the owner's permission, regardless of how the vehicle is used. Permission can be express or implied. Pursuant to CPLR §388, an owner of an automobile can be held liable for the negligence of the drivers of his or her automobile. The pertinent part of the statute states that "every owner of a vehicle used or operated in this state 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...."
A recent Court of Appeals case clarified the meaning of the phrase "use or operation" of a vehicle as it appears in the CPLR and distinguished its meaning from the same phrase that is used in the Insurance Law section 5103(n)(l) setting when defining entitlement to No-fault benefits. In Argentina v. Emery World Wide Delivery Corp., 93 N.Y.2d 554, 693 N.Y.S2d 493 (1999), the Court of Appeals interpreted the purpose of §388(1) of the Vehicle and Traffic Law and determined that it is different than the No-fault law. It held that interpretations of "use or operation" of an automobile applied in the No-fault setting should not be adopted in the negligence setting. The Court stated that the purpose of §388(1) of the Vehicle and Traffic Law is "to ensure recourse to the vehicle's owner, a financially responsible party." The Court further determined that a vehicle's owner can be vicariously liable under §388(1) for injuries resulting from a permissive user's negligent loading and unloading. It need not be shown that a person's injuries while loading or unloading a vehicle were produced by the vehicle. The fact that the injuries were caused by an instrumentality other than the vehicle will not be fatal to plaintiff's claim, The Court also ruled that reading a proximate cause limitation into the statute was unnecessary because negligence must be established under VTL §388. In order to establish liability in the "use" of a vehicle, negligence must be shown, and that negligence must be a cause of the injury.