Most folks don’t know about Alabama’s guest statute law and those who do really don’t see the need for it. For the uninformed, a “guest statute” is a law passed by many states between 1927 to 1939 to protect drivers from hitch hikers suing a hospitable driver and to prevent collusion between a driver and a family member or friend against an insurance company. This, at that time, was thought to be a noble undertaking.
Between 1927 and 1939, thirty-three state legislatures passed a form of a “guest statute.” In 1935, the Alabama Legislature passed a “guest statute” and the reasoning for the passage of the Act, like all other states, was to encourage hospitality by host drivers since it would be unfair for a hitchhiker to sue his benefactor. Also it was to prevent any opportunity for collusion against a liability insurance company in the event a driver and his guest were related or knew one another.
Beginning in the 1970’s, and continuing through the 1980’s, many state legislatures started to repeal the existing “guest statutes.” State supreme courts and federal courts began to find these statutes unconstitutional because the justification and reasoning for enacting these statutes had no rational basis fifty to sixty years after the statutes were initially enacted. Many courts and legislative bodies began to realize that:
- The protection of the host driver does not justify the different treatment of an automobile guest from other recipients of the host generosity. Further with compulsory insurance laws made the hospitality justification meritless.
- The collusion prevention argument was meritless, too. Although the “guest statute” may prevent a few collusive suits between drivers and passenger, the statute operated to bar a great majority of valid claims.
Today, Alabama is the only state with a comprehensive guest statute which precludes an action for simple negligence unless the passenger confers a benefit to the driver such as paying for gas or sharing trip expenses, or the driver’s conduct is wanton or willful. Three other states have a less comprehensive and less limiting guest statute.
The Alabama Supreme Court has reviewed three cases that have challenged the constitutionality of the “guest/passenger statute.” On all three occasions, the Supreme Court failed to declare the guest statute unconstitutional. In fact, in one of the cases, one of the justices suggested it was a function of the Legislature to repeal the guest statute and not a function of the Court to declare it unconstitutional. It has been 35 years since that case and neither the Alabama Supreme Court nor the Alabama Legislature has done anything to repeal the statute or to declare it unconstitutional. A Nevada Supreme Court Justice summed it up best when he wrote:
The friends of the driver, his family, those to whom he stands in the closest relationship of faith, and trust, in confidence, must suffer injuries at his hands without recompense, solaced only by the thought that, after all the skull was cracked by a friendly hand. His legal status; this invited guest; is no better than that of a trespasser. The hospital bill, the loss from a long illness, all arising from the wrong of another and without fault of the part of the victim, must be shouldered without the aid of him who did the wrong. Why? Because of the relationship between them was one of trust and friendship. No money had changed hands. If, however, not a neighbor himself is carried to town, but rather his livestock to the slaughter house, many modern courts would permit full recovery for the injury to the unfortunate animal through failure to use reasonable care for its safety. Is this one answer of an enlightened people to the hollowed question: How much then is a man better than a sheep?
Hopefully, something will be done next year to get rid of an antiquated law that serves no useful purpose. Either the Alabama Legislature or the Alabama Supreme Court should repeal the law or declare it unconstitutional. If you would like to have more information on this subject, contact Mike Crow, a lawyer in our firm who handles personal injury cases, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Mike.Crow@beasleyallen.com.