SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (FOX 2) - A Jeep dealership in Rochester Hills has agreed to a settlement with the family of a mechanic who was killed on the job in March 2020 after the victim's family sued the owner of the car.
Attorney David Femminineo told FOX 2 that the dealership, Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge, and the family of Jeffrey Hawkins agreed to an undisclosed settlement after he was killed on March 13, 2020, when the owner of a Jeep brought his car in for an oil change.
What happened was the dealership indemnified - took responsibility for - the legal responsibility of the Jeep owner. For further explanation of indemnity, scroll down as we explain the legal definition.
Under Michigan law, if someone is injured or killed and a vehicle is involved, the owner of the car is responsible.
So the Jeep owner, who was waiting in the lobby at the time of Hawkins' death, was responsible in the civil case. There were no criminal charges filed in Hawkins' death. Femminineo had sued the Jeep owner for $15 million.
"We can't (sue the dealership) because of a legal standard that is involved," he said.
Femminineo said the owner of the Jeep "did not pay a penny" but that the dealership and family reached an undisclosed settlement.
Why was the owner held responsible?
In Michigan, a worker who is injured or killed on the job cannot sue the boss because of the boss' negligence. According to FOX 2's Charlie Langton, in this case, the boss is negligent because they hired someone who didn't know how to drive a stick and didn't even have a driver's license.
So even though the boss was negligent in hiring someone who shouldn't have been driving, the victim's family cannot hold the boss responsible.
Instead, the remedy for the victim's family is to seek out worker's compensation, which they have and were paid out $100,000.
Under worker's compensation, Hawkins' family will receive wages and medical based on his dependents and how much he made at the time of his death.
However, there are multiple wrinkles here. Because Hawkins' death involved a car, there is a statute known as the owner's liability statute that means the owner of the car is legally responsible.
If the owner gave permission to the driver to drive the car, the owner is negligent. When the Jeep driver gave his keys over to the employee who was driving, he gave permission to the employee to drive the car. This makes the owner legally responsible and is automatically liable for the driver's negligence.
What is indemnity?
The owner of the Jeep Wrangler had options when the lawsuit was filed and that was to seek indemnity.
Indemnity means that, if the judge rules against the car owner, the dealership would pay the balance. In other words, it shields the car owner and instead places the responsibility on the dealership.
In that separate lawsuit, the dealership was ordered to provide indemnity for the Jeep owner.
Why wasn't the teen charged?
The then 19-year-old didn't have a driver's license and didn't know how to drive a manual transmission.
Langton said the 19-year-old cannot be held criminally responsible for a mistake.
"Generally speaking, a criminal act requires some criminal intent. This is an accident - plain and simple," Langton said.
The 19-year-old is not being identified because he is not facing any criminal charges.
According to the law, the owner is vicariously liable for the negligent acts of the teen because he was driving his vehicle with permission.
If the vehicle had been stolen, the vicariously liable law is no longer in effect and that person who is driving your vehicle without
In documents filed in Oakland County circuit court, more details reveal what happened that day.
On March 13, 2020, Hawkins left his home that he shared with his wife and children. It was a little more than an hour later that his wife learned he had been in an accident and hospitalized. He died just before 9 a.m. that morning.
According to the court documents, the Jeep owner brought his Wrangler 4-door for an oil change and tire rotation. The service was being performed by a 19-year-old who had worked at the dealership for two months was performing the maintenance. The teen completed the job and lowered the vehicle, putting all four wheels on the ground.
At this stage, he then attempted to start the Jeep to check for oil leaks around the filter. However, the Jeep had a manual transmission. The teen was not sitting inside the Jeep but reached inside the vehicle with his right foot and a hand. He pushed the brake with his right foot and his left foot was on the floor.
When he pressed the start button, nothing happened. Then he took his foot off the brake and pushed the clutch and pressed the start button. This time the Jeep started.
The teen was still outside of the Jeep and, when he moved his right foot off of the clutch, the Jeep lurched forward.
At that exact moment, Hawkins was in front of the Jeep and had bent down to get something from a metal cabinet. A coworker said he was actually on his knees with his back to the Jeep the teenager started the vehicle. When it lurched forward, it crushed Hawkins into the cabinet.
The teen did not have a license and had never driven a manual transmission, according to his own admission in a court deposition. He admitted that he has never had a license, driven a vehicle with a manual transmission and a clutch pedal, taken a driver's education class, or taken a class to teach him how to drive a manual transmission.
The court documents state that the 19-year-old assumed that Hawkins had parked the Jeep in gear when he positioned it over the lift. However, it's not known who parked the Jeep inside of Hawkins' bay that morning. The shop manager said mechanics or porters will move vehicles but there was no record of who did so.
The second part is that it's common and recommended by experts to park a car with a manual transmission in either first gear or reverse to prevent it from rolling away but the operator, when starting the vehicle, should check the transmission first.
Langton said the teenager made a mistake but that doesn't always mean there's a crime. He said it was unlikely that a warrant was even presented to the prosecutor's office.
"Just because there's a bad or tragic result, doesn't mean there's a crime. Mistakes are made," Langton said. "Even if you are negligent, that doesn't mean it's a criminal act. If for some reason it was, a jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the 19-year-old intended to kill him."
The teenager was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which would have had an impact on charges and the civil suit.