Is a Valet Service Responsible for the Actions of Drunk Drivers?

The question of whether a valet parking service owes a duty to third parties to refrain from returning car keys to an obviously intoxicated customer was answered in the recent Florida Second District Court of Appeals decision, Weber v. Marino Parking Systems, Inc., 37 Fla. L. Weekly D2576a. In the Weber case, Michael Price drove his car to the Sway Lounge with Nicole Weber. He left his car with the valet service. Once inside the lounge, Price was served large quantities of alcohol and became visibly intoxicated. Despite being intoxicated, Price obtained his car from the valet. After departing the lounge in his vehicle, Price was involved in a car accident which claimed the life of Nicole Weber.

Weber’s estate filed a wrongful death action against the lounge and the valet service claiming that the valet service had a duty to refrain from returning car keys to an intoxicated driver. The trial court dismissed the complaint against the valet service because they determined as a matter of law, that the valet service did not owe a duty to Weber in this case. Weber’s estate appealed and the Second District Court of Appeals found that dismissal against the valet service was warranted.

The appeals court found that an essential element of a negligent entrustment cause of action is that the person charged with liability has to have a superior right to control the property. The court explained that because Price already owned the car, that the valet service cannot be liable for negligently entrusting it to its rightful owner. In fact, the valet service would have been liable for conversion of property had they failed to return the car to Price.

The court further stated that the issue of negligent entrustment will depend on the arrangement and relationship between the owner of the property and the person who is holding the property for a certain purpose under an express or implied contract. In the Weber case, the valet service had a legal duty to return the car to Price and could not be held liable for having done so regardless of Price’s level of intoxication.

In a personal injury or wrongful death law suit, it is critical to identify all possible defendants and to have support in the law for moving forward in holding them liable. The Weber case seems to say that valet services will not be held liable for accidents that occur after returning vehicles to their customers, even if the customer appears intoxicated when they retrieved the vehicle. In these kinds of cases, there may still be a claim against the entity that served the alcohol, however it appears that without more or different facts than the Weber case, a valet service is protected from liability for what happens after they return a car to its owner.