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Why Alabama’s Guest Passenger Statute is Unconstitutional

May 15, 2023 General

I represented a mother who lost her 19 year-old daughter in a single-vehicle car accident.  I’ll call the daughter Lauren. Lauren was the homecoming queen at her small high school in north Alabama, was on honor roll at the community college she attended, and she had plans of being a nurse. One night in the fall of 2019, Lauren was riding with a friend who lost control of the vehicle, causing it to leave the roadway and hit a tree.  All was lost in one moment of carelessness by the driver.

I had to have a tough talk with the mother at our initial consultation.  You see, Alabama has a legal anachronism called the Guest Statute, sometimes also referred to as the Guest Passenger Statute.  It essentially says that a guest in someone’s vehicle cannot win a personal injury/wrongful death claim against the driver if the driver was merely negligent.

Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care. It is the legal theory for the vast majority of personal injury cases because you are not required to prove malicious intent nor any form of reckless behavior.  Mistakenly running a red light causing a car accident is a perfect example of negligence. Or losing control of a vehicle on complete accident like Lauren’s friend did on that autumn evening in 2019. Therefore, the Guest Passenger Statute prohibits numerous Alabamians from recovering compensation when the driver of the vehicle they are occupying causes an accident.

While we ended up winning Lauren’s case, it was especially difficult because of the Guest Passenger Statute. However, in that case, I researched the Guest Passenger Statute extensively because I planned on challenging its constitutionality before the Supreme Court of Alabama. Since the case settled prior to trial, I never had the chance to challenge the Guest Passenger Statute. However, I want to share with you what I discovered during my quest to remove this “legal dinosaur” from the Alabama law books.

I hope you too can use this article some day. The legal dinosaur needs its astroid.

The Alabama Guest Passenger Statute Explained

The Guest Statute was enacted by the Alabama Legislature in 1935 and provides:

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, in or upon said motor vehicle, resulting from the operation 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.” § 32-1-2 Code of Alabama (1975)

The Supreme Court of Alabama summarized the primary justification of the Guest Statute in Blair v. Greene, 22 So. 2d 834, 837 (Ala. 1945), stating:

 [a]s the use of automobiles became almost universal, many cases arose where generous drivers, having offered rides to guests, later found themselves defendants in cases that often turned upon close questions of negligence. Undoubtedly the legislature in adopting this act reflected a certain natural feeling as to the injustice of such a situation.

Another oft-repeated justification for enactment of guest statutes across the country was to prevent collusion against insurance companies. See Ramey v. Ramey, 258 S.E. 2d 883 (S.C. 1979).  Therefore, the two justifications traditionally set forth for the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute are: (1) promoting hospitality of automobile drivers; and (2) preventing collusive lawsuits against insurers.[1]

Professor Prosser and other legal scholars have concluded the true reason for the passage of guest statutes around the country in the 1920s and 1930s was extensive lobbying by liability insurance companies.[2] One author claimed that guest statutes are “the most vicious pieces of legislation an active insurance lobby was able to foist on an unsuspecting public.”[3] Legal commentators and judges have soundly criticized the justifications for the statute. For example, in Beasley v. Bozeman, 315 So. 2d 570, 571 (Ala. 1975), Alabama Supreme Court Justice Jones, concurring specially, said:

[t]o disagree with the public policy expressed by the legislature in the guest statute is easy. Indeed, I have always believed that the ‘hitch-hiker’ theory, which was allegedly the basis of the public policy expressed therein, was but a guise and a ruse for the real reason for its passage – the protection of corporate insurors and other vested interests.

Guest Passenger Statutes In States Other than Alabama?

Alabama is the only state with a comprehensive guest statute.[4] Although twenty-nine (29) states enacted versions of the guest statute between 1927-1939, no other state has enacted an automobile guest statute since 1939. Whitworth v. Bynum, 699 S.W. 2d 194, 196 (Tex. 1985).

Numerous state appellate courts have struck down guest statutes on equal protection grounds. Most of these decisions occurred in the 1970s and 80s, which is the same time frame in which the majority of states made automobile liability insurance mandatory.[5]

The Supreme Courts of the states of Texas[6], Iowa[7], New Mexico[8], Wyoming[9], Nevada[10], Ohio[11], Idaho[12], Kansas[13], California[14], South Carolina[15], Michigan[16], North Dakota[17], and Utah[18] have struck down guest statutes on equal protection grounds.  Alabama has yet to do so.

Why the Statute Violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not give a state the power to legislate that different treatment be given to persons by placing them into different classes on the basis of criteria wholly unrelated to the objective of the statute.

To determine whether a statutory classification scheme violates the equal protection guarantee, the United States Supreme Court has followed a two-tiered test.  If the classification involves a fundamental right, such as the right to vote, or if the classification involves a suspect classification such as race, it has been held that the State bears a heavy burden to justify the classification distinction. Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966) (defining the right to vote as a fundamental right); Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia,, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) (deeming race a suspect classification). The analysis for fundamental rights and suspect classification is review under “strict scrutiny.”  In all other areas of the law, such as social welfare legislation, a restrained standard of review is applied, which has become commonly referred to as the “rational basis” test. Dandrid v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471 (1970). When subjected to an equal protection challenge, the law will survive scrutiny “if the distinction it makes rationally furthers a legitimate state purpose.” Zobel v. Williams, 457 U.S. 55, 60 (1982).

Upon analyzing the reasons set forth for the Guest Passenger Statute, neither justification constitutes a rational basis for the differential treatment accorded by the statute’s classification scheme. This conclusion has been reached by numerous state Supreme Courts. See e. g. Primes v. Tyler, 331 N.E. 2d 723 (Ohio 1975); Thompson v. Hagan, 523 P. 2d 1365 (Idaho 1974); Henry v. Bauder, 518 P. 2d. 362 (Kan. 1974); Brown v. Merlo, 506 P. 2d 212 (Cal. 1973).

The alleged purpose of “protection of hospitality” does not provide a rational basis for the Guest Passenger Statute’s classification system. Henry, 518 P. 2d at 369. Legal scholar Susan Randall notes there are several logical defects with this justification in her thoroughly researched article Only in Alabama: A Modest Tort Agenda, Ala. L. Rev. at 990, Vo. 60:4:977 (2009).

First, this rationale fails to explain why the statute assigns differential treatment to automobile guests as distinguished from all other guests for that matter, indeed, all other recipients of hospitality or generosity.  Second, it fails to explain, in light of recent developments in comparable legal doctrines, how such an interest in protecting hospitality can rationally justify the withdrawal of legal protection from guests. Third, there is no evidence whatsoever that guest statutes actually encourage drivers to be hospitable. As Professor Randall noted, “[t]he idea that drivers will not permit nonpaying guests to ride in their vehicles without the protection of a guest statute is obviously belied by the ordinary experience of drivers and passengers in other states.”[1] Finally, it completely ignores the prevalence of liability insurance coverage today, a factual development, which largely undermines any rational connection between the prevention of lawsuits and the protection of hospitality.  Brown, 506 P. 2d at 215.

The second argument in favor of the guest statute is that it prevents collusive lawsuits against insurance companies. However, this collusion prevention justification does not provide a sufficient basis for this statute’s elimination of all automobile guests’ causes of action for negligently inflicted injuries. Henry, 518 P.2 d at 369. The prevention of collusion rationale is inadequate to justify, in equal protection terms, the elimination of all automobile guests’ right to recover for negligently inflicted injuries. Id. The wholesale elimination of all guest causes of actions for negligence does not treat similarly situated persons equally, but instead discriminates against all guests on the basis of a factor which bears no significant relation to actual collusion.  Brown, 506 P. 2d at 215.

To effectuate its purpose of eliminating collusive lawsuits, the guest statute draws a distinction between automobile riders on the basis of whether or not a passenger provides his driver a “material benefit”: those riders who pay for their ride are not affected by the statute, but riders who do not bestow a benefit on their host, i.e., who ride for free, are denied a cause of action in negligence. Hurst v. Sneed, 229 So. 3d 215 (Ala. 2017); Henry, 518 P. 2d at 370. Therefore, the classifications which the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute creates between those denied and those permitted to recover compensation does not bear a rational relation to the statute’s purpose of preventing collusive lawsuits against insurance companies.

Given all of this, there is a very strong argument that Alabama’s Guest Passenger Statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Why the Statute Violates the Alabama Constitution

Whether the Alabama Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws under Art. I §§ 1, 6, and 22 remains a touchy legal subject.  While there has been division among the Supreme Court of Alabama on this issue, the current reading of case law continues to guarantee equal protection.  For a full run-down on this legal issue review and try to reconcile Black v. Pike County Comm’n, 300 So. 2d. 303 (Ala. 1978); Ex parte Jackson, 516 So. 2d. 768 (Ala. 1986), and Ex parte Branch, 526 So. 2d. 609 (Ala. 1987) (implying that those provisions do provide for equal protection); but see Ex parte Melof, 735 So. 2d. 1172 (Ala. 1999).  Hutchins v. DCH Regional Medical Center, 770 So. 2d. 49, 59 (Ala. 2000).  I wish you good luck in untangling that mess. You will need it.

The Alabama Supreme Court recognized Equal Protection in Black v. Pike County Comm’n, 360 So. 2d. 303 (Ala. 1978), stating “[s]ections 1, 6, and 22 of the Alabama Constitution combine to guarantee equal protection of the laws.”  In Plitt v. Griggs, 585 So. 2d 1317, 1324-25 (Ala. 1991), the Supreme Court of Alabama stated that the analysis of equal protection under the United States Constitution would be “equally applicable” to the analysis of equal protection under the Alabama Constitution. As stated in Plitt, the analysis of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution and the Alabama Constitution should be “equally applicable.” Plitt, 585 So. 2d at 1324-25. For now, let’s assume Plitt is still good law.

The issue of whether the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute is constitutional was last presented to the Alabama Supreme Court in Tolbert v. Tolbert. 903 So. 2d 103, 110 (Ala. 2004).  The Court failed to decide whether the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because the issue was not properly briefed or properly presented in Tolbert.

The next personal injury lawyer to challenge the Alabama Guest Passenger Statute would be wise to review the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Whitworth v. Bynum, 699 S.W. 2d 194 (Tex. 1985). In Whitworth, Texas concluded that the Texas guest statute violated the state’s constitution. The Texas Supreme Court concluded that it was “at liberty to interpret state statutes in light of [its] own constitution and to fashion [its] own tests to determine a statute’s constitutionality.” Whitworth, 699 S.W. 2d at 196. The Texas Supreme Court employed its own rational basis scrutiny to the Texas guest statute, holding “the classifications drawn by this statute are not rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” Id., at 197.

Injury Lawyers: Challenge the Guest Passenger Statute in Every Case

I encourage all of my personal injury attorney colleagues to file a motion to declare the statute unconstitutional in every case where it is asserted as a defense. If you need a copy of the motion I filed in Lauren’s case, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Visit my attorney profile for my contact information.

I predict that some Alabama lawyer will successfully challenge the Guest Passenger Statute on constitutional grounds. It may be decades from now, but it will happen.  I hope this article can be a tool in that process. It is beyond time that the statute goes the way of the dinosaur.


[1]Susan Randall, Only in Alabama: A Modest Tort Agenda, Ala. L. Rev. at 990, Vol. 60:4:977 (2009). Click here for Professor Randall’s full Article on Alabama Guest Passenger Statute

[2] Prosser, The Law of Torts 187 (4th ed. 1971); Furman, The Future of the Automobile Guest State, 45 Temp. L.Q. 432-433 (1972).

[3] Gibson, Guest Statute Discrimination, 6 Alberta L. Rev. 211, 218 (1968).

[4] n. 3, at 988.

[5] Alma Cohen & Rajeev Dehejia, The Effect of Automobile Insurance and Accident Liability Laws on Traffic Fatalities, Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, Vol. 47, 357-393 (2004) (see Table 1).

[6] Whitworth v. Bynum, 699 S.W. 2d 194 (Tex. 1985)

[7] Bierkamp v. Rogers, 293 N.W. 2d 577 (Iowa 1980)

[8] McGeehan v. Bunch, 540 P.2d 238 (N.M. 1975)

[9] Nehring v. Russell, 582 P. 2d 67 (Wyo. 1978)

[10] Laakonen v. Eighth Judicial District Court, 538 P.2d. 574 (Nev. 1975).

[11] Primes v. Tyler, 331 N.E.2d 723 (Ohio 1975)

[12] Thompson v. Hagan, 523 P.2d 1365 (Idaho 1974)

[13] Henry v. Bauder, 518 P.2d. 362 (Kan. 1974)

[14] Brown v. Merlo, 506 P.2d 212 (Cal. 1973)

[15] Ramey v. Ramey, 258 S.E.2d 883 (S.C. 1979)

[16] Manistee Bank & Trust Co. v. McGowan, 232 N.W. 2d 636 (Mich. 1975)

[17] Johnson v. Hassett, 217 N.W. 2d 771 (N.D. 1974)

[18] Malan v. Lewis, 693 P. 2d 661 (Utah 1984)