“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” – Appellate Division Answers

The story of Cain and Abel raises the age-old question, “am I my brother’s keeper?” According to the New Jersey Appellate Division the answer is “Yes, you are.”

On June 1, 2021, the Appellate Court held in Vladimir Diaz v. Herbert J. Reynoso, Docket No. A-1285-20 that a volunteer who promised police that he would take responsibility of a drunk driver could potentially be liable when the drunk driver later caused a motor vehicle accident.

This is surprising since there is no duty to control the conduct of others absent a special relationship, such as parent-child, master-servant, or landlord-tenant.

In Diaz, police officers stopped a driver who was traveling in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Perceiving the motorist was unfit to drive, the officers asked him to arrange for someone to pick him up. The motorist called a friend, who assured the officers that he would drive the motorist and his car to another location. Relying on this assurance, the police issued a traffic ticket for a moving violation to the motorist and allowed the friend to drive him away. Minutes later, the friend returned the car to the motorist at a railroad crossing and separated from him. The motorist, who was intoxicated well over the legal limit, resumed driving and crashed his car into the plaintiff's vehicle.

Ultimately, the Court found that the friend may be liable, if in fact the friend assumed and breached a legal duty. However, the Court provided one major caveat. The Court indicated that such a legal duty will hinge upon whether the volunteer is advised by the police, or objectively has reason to know from the surrounding circumstances, that his or her promise is an important obligation and that failing to carry it out could result in civil financial consequences.

The Court’s ruling opens the door to potential civil liability for those who assume responsibility of an intoxicated friend, who thereafter gets behind the wheel and into an accident.

If you experienced similar circumstances involving the care of a driver impaired by alcohol or drugs, or have questions about DUI charges and related criminal law matters in New Jersey, contact Joshua A. Filzer, Esq. at jfilzer@hoaglandlongo.com or William G. McGuinn, Esq. at wmguinn@hoaglandlong.com for assistance.