Alabama's Guest Suit Statute
Probably no single statute contained in the Alabama traffic code, other than the DUI statute, has generated more litigation and reported cases than the Guest Statute. This section of the Code was enacted during the 1935 legislative session and signed into law on September 13, 1935. The text of the Guest Statute, now codified at Code of Alabama, 1975, section 32-1-2, has not been altered or amended since enactment. The statute reads: "The owner, operator or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest while being transported without payment thereof, unless such injuries or death are caused by the willful or wanton misconduct of such operator, owner, or person responsible for the operation of said motor vehicle." While many judicial decisions have noted the purpose of the Guest Statute is to hold harmless and shield generous drivers from tort liability who may offer transportation to an acquaintance or "guest," most commentators have stated the statute serves to immunize the driver from the ordinary duty of care. The most common judicial interpretation of the Guest Statute is that the Legislature, in enacting this section, reflected the belief that generous operators who offer an occasional lift or act of goodwill to a person riding in the vehicle as a passenger should not later be held liable for ordinary negligence on part of the operator. When the act was passed in 1935, at the middle of the Great Depression, less than 2,100 miles of paved roadway existed in the state and motor vehicle ownership was not nearly as common as it is today. As the use of automobiles became almost universal, many cases arose interpreting the scope and meaning of the term "guest" as well as the term "willful and wanton" as used in this section of the Code. The issues of whether a passenger is, in fact, a "guest" under the terms of the statute, and whether the driver exhibited "wanton conduct" prior to the collision are the most common issues contested. There have been over 70 reported appellate decisions construing Alabama's Guest Statute since the statute's enactment, and the topic continues to be an area of frequent litigation. The cases included are illustrative, but not inclusive, of the many appellate decisions decided under the Guest Statute. Coleman v. Smith, 901 So. 2d 729 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004): The evidence placed before the court indicated the operator was driving between 55 to 65 miles per hour and in the wrong lane at the time of the accident; the road was narrow with no delineated center line, consisting of loose tar and gravel; and the roadway was constructed with a "blind hill" that prevented oncoming traffic from seeing each other until the hill was crested. Whether driver's actions rose to a level of wantonness within the meaning of the Guest Statute was an issue for the jury to determine, and could not be disposed by judgment as a matter of law. Shelter Mut. Ins. Co. v. Barton, 822 So. 2d 1149 (Ala. 2001): The Alabama Guest Statute which bars a passenger from suing a driver for injuries sustained in an accident, unless the driver engaged in willful and wanton misconduct, applied to an accident occurring in this state involving driver and uninsured motorist, even though automobile insurance policy was issued out of state and construed under terms of law of Missouri. Thedford v. Payne, 813 So. 2d 905 (Ala. Civ. App. 2001): The passenger's paying nominal and irregular amounts of money (in this case, $2 or $3 to assist in paying for gasoline) was more in the nature of "a mere social courtesy" and did not remove the driver/operator from the protections afforded under the Guest Statute, contrasting the regular payments and "joint business relationship" nature of transportation found in Sellers v. Sexton, 576 So. 2d 172, 174 (Ala. 1991). Same holding: Plaintiff's occasional helping to pay for gas was a mere social courtesy on behalf of friend and did not convert the passenger into a "paying passenger" and outside the protections afforded under the Guest Statute. Klaber By and Through Klaber v. Elliott, 533 So. 2d 576 (Ala. 1988). Sullivan v. Davis, 263 Ala. 685, 83 So. 2d 434 (1955): The so-called "guest statute" was designed to provide relief for drivers of automobiles who had extended their hospitality to passengers, and were then subject to suit, under the common law, which held the driver responsible to his guests for a breach of duty to exercise ordinary care. Courts have generally held in determining who are "guests" within the meaning of such statute that they would not extend the influence of the statute beyond the evils which the Legislature intended to correct. [The court went on to offer a "balancing of interests" test between present and former relationship of driver and passenger; implied and express arrangements between the parties; purpose of the mission; benefits accruing to the driver and passenger; and any other factor that would shed light on the true status of the parties at the time of the accident.] Wagnon v. Patterson, 260 Ala. 297, 70 So. 2d 244 (1954): The question of whether making a regular contribution to the driver to assist paying for gasoline and oil changes the transportation offered from being one of a "guest" to that of a "passenger" is a question of fact for the jury.