Hidden Car Key Leaves Thief Holding the Bag (NY)

Generally, a vehicle owner is not liable if a car thief is negligent in his operation of the vehicle.  However, New York law leaves an opening if an owner negligently leaves the keys in an obvious place in the car – thereby enabling the car thief.  Yet, the law recognizes that owners should be permitted to leave a spare key hidden in the vehicle in case it is ever needed.

In Alvarez v. Bivens, the owner of a truck parked his vehicle and placed a spare key in a hide-away-box behind his rear tire.  Upon returning hours later, he found that his truck had been stolen. Although the truck was ultimately recovered, it was not found until after the thief struck the plaintiff with the stolen vehicle.  The plaintiff filed suit against the owner and the thief to recover for personal injuries.

The motion court denied the owner’s motion for summary judgment, but the First Department reversed.  Given that the car was stolen, the Appellate Division found that the owner had not given his consent to the thief.  Moreover, the court found that the owner had not violated Section 1210(a) which requires drivers to turn off their ignition and remove the key from the vehicle since it absolves a driver of liability with respect to a key stashed in the car for emergencies so long as it is hidden from sight.  The court found the owner’s placement of the key behind the rear wheel’s frame was a sufficient hiding spot as the thief would have to be “peeking around a little bit” in order to find the key.

Thanks to Georgia Stagias for her contribution.

For more information, contact Denise Fontana Ricci at dricci@wcmlaw.com.