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I recently purchased a vehicle via an online dealer that offers a 7 day test-drive period.

While on a test drive, I heard a familiar "Knocking" noise coming from the driver's side front wheel. I happened to know what it was, as I had experienced this once before.

The wheel was not attached properly, and the nuts were loose. Another 10 minutes of driving, it would've popped off and rolled down the road. (Again, this has happened to me before and narrowly missed going into someone's windshield - Thankfully that incident resulted only in damage to my wheel and lower arm joint.)

I pulled over, tightened the nuts, and drove it the last mile home. I contacted the dealer and told them I would be exercising the 7-day guarantee - I would not be purchasing the vehicle.

When it was picked up, I told them on no uncertain terms that the vehicle was not fit to drive until the wheels were inspected by a professional.

In addition to this, the company that sold me the car has a "150 point checklist" that specifically claims to have addressed these exact deficient items on the car.

Auto Dealer Checklist Item 28, Wheels & Lugnuts

My question is, had the wheel come off and caused horrible damage to life and property, who would have been held responsible? The car was not yet registered in my name as it was in a "Test drive period", I did have insurance, and the problem would not have been my fault (as far as I am concerned, at least. . But what does the law think?)

Even though this is a hypothetical, it came very close to happening. If it's relevant, this would've taken place in Texas, United States.

2 Answers 2

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Yes

Under Texas law (and pretty much everywhere else) the driver of the vehicle is responsible for ensuring that it is roadworthy. This does not mean that someone else cannot also be liable - the mechanic who fixed the wheel and their employer would also be liable.

The claim for damages from a motor vehicle accident lies in the tort of negligence and the standards that the driver has to attain to avoid liability is that of a reasonable person. A reasonable person is not an average person who (probably) just gets in a car and drives but a prudent person who considers the risks to themselves and others and takes reasonable steps to mitigate them.

Like looking at the wheels of an unfamiliar car. If the defect were obvious to a layperson from a visual inspection, they would be liable if they had not conducted such an inspection.

Similarly, continuing to drive when a car is making a "Knocking" noise even if you didn't know what it was is not something a reasonable person would do. If you knew what the noise was and kept driving we are now moving from negligence into recklessness and the realms of criminal liability like manslaughter.

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  • "Similarly, continuing to drive when a car is making a "Knocking" noise even if you didn't know what it was is not something a reasonable person would do." That's just ridiculous. Someone's going to off to the side of the road and pay hundreds of dollars for a tow just because there's a knocking sound? And that's if they can find a place where it's legal to pull over. Apr 28 at 1:50
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    @Acccumulation why would they pay for a tow? They would pull over and investigate - if the problem could be fixed great, if not they might need a tow or a mobile mechanic. A reasonable person doesn't put their life and others at risk just because its inconvenient or expensive not to.
    – Dale M
    Apr 28 at 2:18
  • I'd ensure that the car is roadworthy by letting the seller go through a 150 point checklist; surely that is better than anything I could do. So the visual inspection (and more) has been performed.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 28 at 11:32
  • I suppose the answer is pretty cut and dry -- The vehicle is the responsibility of the driver.
    – Turbo
    May 2 at 13:52
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It would be determined on a case by case basis in states, such as Colorado (and most, but not all, other U.S. states) that have a comparative negligence regime.

In these states, a jury is asked if negligence was a case of an accident at all, and if so, to whom, among the driver, the owner of the vehicle, and other third-parties who are alleged to have done something negligent, fault should be allocated.

Assuming, for simplicity's sake, a completely blameless person injured by the crash from the wheel falling off, the potential defendants would be the owner-driver, the dealer, and possibly the manufacturer of the vehicle.

The owner-driver has a legal duty to use reasonable care to protect third-parties from being injured in an accident due to the defective state of the vehicle. A jury would have to determine if the owner-driver was negligent in not noticing the problem before the accident happened, when a reasonable person would have known something was wrong and corrected it. In this case, that is probably a close call. One jury could find that a reasonable person wouldn't inspect a new certified car to see that the nuts were properly attached and wouldn't be able to identify the potential problem or its seriousness from the sounds that they heard. Another jury hearing the same facts could reach a different conclusion.

The dealer, in contrast, is almost certainly negligent and it would be very surprising for a jury to find that the dealer's negligence was less than that of the owner-driver. So, a majority of the damages, perhaps a large majority of the damages, would probably be allocated to the dealer.

If there was evidence that the problem was likely in this particular type of vehicle due to a design defect in the vehicle or due to a defective part that was used in manufacturing it, some of the liability that would otherwise be allocated to the dealer might be allocated to the manufacturer.

Sometimes a mere owner who has no personal negligence (the dealer if the title hasn't transferred, or the purchaser otherwise), or the head of household of the driver, has "vicarious liability" without fault for the driver even though someone else for whom the owner/head of household is responsible also has liability, basically as a guarantor of the person at fault. The way this is handled differs quite a bit from state to state.

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