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Know your rights: Insurance doesn't affect liability

Aug. 13, 2011 at 3:13 a.m.


By Richard Alderman

Recently, I had an accident. It turns out that the car was stolen, and the driver doesn't have insurance. I was wondering what rights I have against the owner of the vehicle. I am pretty sure the owner has insurance.

As I have written many times before, whether someone has insurance does not affect liability. Insurance is designed to pay in the event that someone is legally responsible. The fact that someone has insurance does not change the rules of liability. In other words, the owner of the car is or is not liable. The fact that the owner has insurance will affect how you collect, not liability.

Having said that, the owner of a stolen car generally is not liable for damages caused by an accident involving the car. For the owner to be responsible, you would have to show that the owner was negligent, and that is why the theft and accident occurred. As a practical matter, it is difficult to conceive of an example where an owner would be liable after the car was stolen.

From a legal standpoint, however, you are not out of luck. You have a claim against the thief who was driving the car, even if he doesn't have insurance. I am not sure how much your legal rights against a car thief are worth, but you do have the right to sue. If the thief caused the accident, he is liable for the damage to you and your car. If the amount is under $10,000, you can sue in small claims court.

How much notice am I entitled to before I am fired? I showed up for work this morning and was told I was no longer needed. Aren't I entitled to two week's notice? This doesn't seem fair.

As a legal matter, you generally are not entitled to any prior notice. Unless you have an employment contract or union agreement that says otherwise, you may be fired with no prior notice. Your employer may not have treated you fairly, but from a legal standpoint, it had the right to do what it did.

I co-signed for a friend who bought a car. He stopped paying, and I had to pay almost $3,000 to settle the account. Can I recover this money from my friend?

As you seem to understand, when you co-sign you must pay in the event the person you co-signed for does not. If you do not pay, it will be treated as your debt. This means you might face a lawsuit and the debt will be reported to the credit bureau in your name. It sounds like you knew the consequences of not paying, and made the right choice to pay the debt. When a co-signer pays, however, the law gives the co-signer the right to be reimbursed by the other party. I suggest you let your friend know you expect him to reimburse you the full amount you paid. If he does not reimburse you, you could file a claim in small claims court.

I just received a call from a debt collector telling me that if I didn't make arrangements to pay, he would take my Social Security check. This is all I have to live on. What can I do to protect myself?

You don't have to do anything, Congress already has protected you. Under federal law, your Social Security check is protected from your creditors. They cannot take the check or the money when it is in the bank. In addition, the debt collector's threat to take your check violates our federal debt collection law. I suggest you let him know that you know your legal rights and you expect he will stop making unlawful threats. If he continues, consider a claim in small claims court. Under the law, you could be entitled to a penalty of up to $1,000. Check out my website for more information about our debt collection laws, www.peopleslawyer.net.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a Web page at www.peopleslawyer.net.

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