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Georgia Court Determines Car Ownership in Disputed Auto Accident Case

In most instances, determining the ownership of a vehicle in an accident is a relatively straightforward inquiry. One can look at title and registration materials and determine who is on the official paperwork for the vehicle. But what happens when an automobile is being transferred from one person’s ownership to another person’s ownership when an accident occurs? Thankfully, Georgia law specifies the precise time when the ownership of a vehicle transfers, and this can be used to assist with questions of liability and insurance after an accident. A recent case decided by the Georgia Court of Appeals explains how such determinations are made.

In Selective Insurance Company of America v. Conner et al., a dispute arose regarding the ownership of an Xterra that was involved in an accident in Georgia. Ms. Conner had an accident with Ms. Craig, and Ms. Craig’s husband was killed.  Although the case involved numerous factual disputes, solely before the court in this instance was the question of whether Ms. Conner owned the Xterra at the time of the accident, and accordingly who was charged with insuring the damages that resulted from the accident.  On the morning of the accident, Ms. Conner went to the DMV in Georgia and filled out the necessary paperwork to transfer the title of the vehicle from a different party, Precision Tapping, to her own name. She completed the paperwork and paid for the transfer. However, it was only six days later that she received the new title for the Xterra. In the meantime, the accident occurred.

Ms. Conner argued that the transfer of ownership was not complete because she did not intend for it to be completed on the day that she completed the paperwork, but instead for it to be completed when she received the new title. The plaintiff argued that Ms. Conner’s intent was irrelevant because she completed all of the necessary paperwork on the morning before the accident, and, at that time, the transfer of ownership was complete.

The court of appeals, relying on the language in the statute, agreed with the plaintiff. It noted that under Georgia statute 40-3-32, which governs the transfer of title in Georgia, all that an individual needs to do to transfer ownership is to execute the necessary paperwork related to the transfer and “cause the certificate [of title] and assignment to be delivered to the transferee.” The court noted that it was undisputed that Ms. Conner did complete the necessary paperwork at the DMV, and, as a result, she did receive the new certificate of title several days later. Moreover, the DMV documents also indicated that ownership transferred on the day that Ms. Conner went into the DMV, rather than when the title arrived at her house. The court also noted that under the language of this statute, Ms. Conner’s intent was irrelevant, and thus her argument that she did not intend for the ownership to transfer failed.  Based on these facts, the court held that it was indisputable that Ms. Conner owned the Xterra at the time of the accident.

Determining the ownership of a vehicle is a necessary but often overlooked aspect of determining insurance coverage after an automobile accident. It will also have a significant impact on whom a plaintiff may choose to sue in accident-related litigation and the settlement prospects that may be available. If you were a victim of an accident and are concerned that the other driver may not own the vehicle that they were driving, an experienced personal injury attorney can help you further investigate the circumstances of your accident. Stephen M. Ozcomert is an Atlanta car accident attorney with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases and accident insurance disputes, representing individuals who have been involved or injured in accidents in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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