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Motor Vehicle/Equipment Rental Company MSJ Denied Applying Doctrine of Depecage to Truck Rental Transaction in Fatal Fire Vehicle Collision Action
December 22, 2020
On December 14, 2020, the Superior Court of Sussex County, Delaware denied co-Defendant United Rentals, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment, agreeing with arguments made by Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, Daimler North America Corporation and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. represented by MMBAT attorneys Paul Bradley, Don Kinsley and Shari Milewski in a fatal fire motor vehicle accident action.
The case involves a 2016 motor vehicle accident in Laurel, Delaware, when a Ford F-250 rented by co-Defendant Gym Tek Inc. from United Rentals Delaware branch for a construction project in Salisbury, Maryland driven by unlicensed, intoxicated driver and employee of Gym Tek, Michael Gonzalez, crashed into the rear of a 1998 Mercedes ML320 killing the driver and severely burning and injuring his wife. United Rentals filed a motion for summary judgment on grounds that it complied with Delaware code when it ensured the vehicle was properly insured and maintained a record of the identity of the renter. It further argued it did not negligently entrust the vehicle because it had no reason to know the Ford F-250 would be operated by a reckless agent of Gym Tek, and it did not have a duty to check Gonzalez's driver's license. Plaintiff and Mercedes opposed United Rentals' motion. Mercedes argued when United Rentals delivered the truck to Gym Tek’s job site in Maryland, it had a duty under Maryland statutory law to inspect the driver’s license of the person who would be driving the truck and that there are triable issues of fact related to causation. Plaintiff argued the violation of the Maryland statute constituted negligence per se under Delaware case law. In its Reply, United Rentals argued under a choice of law analysis that Delaware law applied and Delaware has no requirement for license inspection by the renter of a vehicle. It also argued it was Gym Tek's responsibility under the contract terms to ensure the vehicle was operated by a licensed capable driver. Mercedes requested oral argument on the motion given United Rentals new argument concerning choice of law. The Court held oral argument on October 8. Mercedes argued the doctrine of depecage, which is the process of deciding choice of law on an issue-by-issue basis with the result that the law of one state may apply to one issue and the law of a different state to another issue in the same case, as discussed in Pittman v. Maldania, Inc., 2001 WL 1221704 (Del. Super. July 31, 2001), applied requiring the application of Maryland law to the rental transaction between Gym Tek and United Rentals, and thus, application of the Maryland license inspection statute. The Court requested and the parties submitted supplemental briefing on these issues. On December 14, the Court denied United Rentals' motion for summary judgment, agreeing with Mercedes' supplemental briefing, that under the doctrine of depecage, Maryland law applies to the rental contract, Maryland law sets the standard for what is required of a lessor in a vehicle rental transaction that may be the basis of liability for United Rentals and causation is best left for the jury.