The Ramblin’ Wreck – University and Auto Restoration Company Held Liable To Injured Student For Improperly Attaching Car Door Handle

Since 1961, part of the collegiate hijinks associated with one Georgia University involves a Ford Model–A, their mascot car. Through that history, student members of an established and sanctioned organization on that campus – The Ramblin’ Wreck Club – have been seen riding on the running boards of that mascot car at football games, parades, and other functions. It is part of the esprit de corps of the university and it serves to fill the student body with pride. We understand. Really we do.

Nevertheless, how responsible is it that such shenanigans are not only allowed by the school, but also encouraged? Should the Board of Regents be responsible when someone participating in such activities becomes injured?

In This Case: Followed by the case number.

The case of Eco-Clean, Inc. v. Brown, 324 Ga. App. 523 (2013), asked this question of the Georgia Judicial System.

When one student member of the Ramblin’ Wreck Club fell from the running board of the moving Model A and was seriously and permanently injured, he sued both the school and a restoration company that had installed the interior and exterior handles of the vehicle when it was refurbished two years earlier. His lawyers argued that the school was liable for the car and the purposes for which it was used. They also argued that the restoration company, being aware of the purposes for which the automobile was used should have taken care to install the door handles in a safe manner. (When the handle came off in the plaintiff’s hands, it had been installed not with the customary bolts, but ½ inch wood screws instead.)

As one might anticipate, the school and the restoration company took the position that the young man had “voluntarily assumed the risks” associated with riding on the outside running boards of a moving vehicle and could not recover for his injuries for this reason.

Quote about directed verdict.

When the trial was over and all the evidence was heard, both defendants requested that the trial judge enter a motion for a directed verdict. A directed verdict is one in which the court requires the jury to find in a very particular way since there is no other possible verdict. The judge denied these motions and the jury entered a judgment against the two defendants of $680,000 each and held the young man to be at least 32 percent liable for his own damages.

Both defendants appealed the trial court’s action saying that not only had the student voluntarily taken the risk of being injured, but he had also failed to prove that the restoration company did not use proper care in the installation and maintenance of the handle that came off the car. They both insisted that there was no question of law for a jury to decide, and leaving the outcome to them was an error.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s action. Upon review the appellate court found that there were, indeed, questions for the jury. Did the restoration company install the handle suitably for its intended use? Was the school liable for the activities of members of the Ramblin’ Wreck Club? The Court of Appeals held that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that door handles on cars should not be installed using small wood screws. They further held that the car and its use in school-sponsored activities made the Board of Regents liable.

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