“Key in the Ignition Statute” Will Hold Vehicle Owner Liable for Deaths of Pedestrians Struck by Drunk Driver Who Had Stolen the Vehicle

When Joe Guerrero left his keys in the ignition of his car with the engine running while he went into a deli last weekend, a drunken man stole his vehicle and then ran down 2 pedestrians. Even though Mr. Guerrero was not driving or occupying the vehicle and had not given the drunk driver, a stranger to him, permission to drive his vehicle, he will be liable to the families of the 2 pedestrians for causing their deaths. This is true because of Vehicle and Traffic Law 1210(a), sometimes called the “key in the ignition statute.” This statute makes the owner of a vehicle liable for injuries caused by a driver when the owner fails to turn off the engine and remove, or at least conceal, the key.The legislature enacted Vehicle and Traffic Law 1210 (a) to protect the public from injury due to the operation of motor vehicles by unauthorized persons.

The legislature recognized the fact that auto theft is a crime of opportunity and intended the law to serve as a deterrent to such opportunities. Vehicle and Traffic Law 1210 (a) states: “No person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle shall permit it to stand unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key from the vehicle, and effectively setting the brake thereon and, when standing upon any grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway, provided, however, the provision for removing the key from the vehicle shall not require the removal of keys hidden from sight about the vehicle for convenience or emergency.” I

n this accident, Kenneth Guyear, 27, stole Mr. Guerrero’s car that was left idling outside of the Super Deli in Middle Village, Queens, and then fatally struck pedestrians Rober Ogle, 16, and Alex Paul, 20. Guyear, 27, of 72nd Street in Middle Village, was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated, vehicular manslaughter, manslaughter, assault, leaving the scene of an accident, grand larceny and driving without a license. Guyear allegedly had a blood alcohol level of 0.126; the legal limit is 0.08.

Mr. Guyear had been at a party and at a brother’s house on Saturday, had stolen the car, a silver Kia, from outside a deli at Alderton Street and Woodhaven Boulevard. Mr. Guyear struck the two young men while they were crossing 80th Street and 62nd Avenue. Vehicle and Traffic Law 1210 (a) and cases interpreting the statute appear to give a bit of leeway to owners by allowing them to leave the key in a car provided that the key is hidden from sight, such as under a styrofoam cup lid.

It seems that Mr. Guerrero was extremely careless in that he left the key in the ignition. The pedestrians’ families will be able to hold Mr. Guerrero liable for the conscious pain and suffering the young men sustained from their personal injuries as well as for their wrongful deaths.

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