Hogan signed his son Nick's driver's license application, and will likely be held liable for injuries attributable to Nick's negligence
Hulk Hogan and his family are currently defending a multi-million-dollar lawsuit that arose from his son Nick's crash of his modified Toyota Supra. The crash left his passenger and friend, John Graziano, hospitalized with major brain damage that will leave him in need of constant medical care for the remainder of his life.
Hulk Hogan (legally, Terry Bollea) made a huge name for himself as a professional wrestler, spawning a phenomenon known as Hulkamania. Later, he and his family became the stars of the TV reality series "Hogan Knows Best," VH1's take-off on "The Osbournes." Now, his life is more of a horror flick.
From TV reality to real reality
The plaintiff's complaint has not yet been answered, but this is what it claims happened:
Hulk invited his 17-year-old son Nick and his friends Graziano and Daniel Jacobs, both age 22, to spend the day on his boat. On the way, Hulk stopped to pick up some unspecified alcoholic beverages, which the four consumed while out on the boat. Afterward, Nick and Graziano left in Nick's heavily modified, 700-plus horsepower 1998 Toyota Supra, which was co-owned by Nick and Hulk. Hulk also loaned his 2003 Dodge Viper to Jacobs for the ride home. Along the way, Nick and Jacobs started street racing "light to light." Nick lost control of the bright yellow Supra, it swerved and hit the median, skidded about 25 yards, spun around, and crashed into a palm tree. The Toyota was so mangled it seemed impossible that anyone had survived, but Nick walked away with minor injuries. Graziano, who was apparently not wearing a seatbelt, suffered massive head trauma. He will live, but will need millions of dollars of medical care for the remainder of his life.
Nowhere near, but still on the hook
The lawsuit was filed in Florida, where everything happened, and names Nick, Jacobs, Hulk and his wife Linda as defendants. It claims that Hulk is liable under Florida law because he owns both cars and because he signed Nick's application for a minor's driver's license. It also claims that both Hulk and Linda are liable because they were negligent in allowing Nick to drive when they knew of his propensity for dangerous driving.
This may be surprising to some readers, but there are several ways in which you can be held liable for crashes caused by your children, or even by other adults driving your car.
Assumed Liability for Minor Children. Under Florida law, a minor (under 18) can't get a driver's license unless a parent or guardian signs the application and thereby becomes jointly and severally liable for all damages caused by the minor's negligence or willful misconduct. Many other states have similar provisions, reflecting a modern trend to restrict driver's licenses for minors in order to address their high accident rates. What sets Florida apart from many of these states is that there is no upper limit to the amount of the parent's liability.
Hulk signed Nick's driver's license application, and will therefore likely be held liable, without limitation, to the extent that Graziano's injuries were attributable to Nick's negligence. If the liability exceeds the insurance coverage, which could well be the case here, Hulk's personal assets will be at risk. However, Linda did not sign the application, so she would not face any liability under this statutory provision.
Car Owner Liability. Another provision of Florida law makes the owner of a car liable for any damages caused by any permissive user of his car. However, the owner's liability is limited to $100,000 per injured person, $300,000 per incident for bodily harm, and $50,000 for property damage. As the owner of the Viper, Hulk would seem to be liable under this statute for the damages caused by Jacobs. But since Hulk and Nick were co-owners of the Supra, he may not have "loaned" the car to Nick. Also, it is not clear whether the liability limits would be doubled because he owned two cars involved in the crash. Linda did not own either car, and should not be liable under this law. But no matter how these uncertainties play out, the damage limitation is low enough that there should be sufficient insurance coverage to absorb the liability.
Family Car Doctrine. About half the states will impose legal liability on the owner(s) of the car when the child is driving the family car. The exact parameters of this approach (e.g., defining "family" and "family car") vary from state to state.
Negligent Supervision. In every state, the owner can be held liable whenever the car is loaned to another person and the owner knew, or should have known, that the other person would pose a risk to others.
The Hogan lawsuit pays much attention to negligent supervision. It claims that Nick had a great propensity for unsafe driving. He is alleged to be a professional drifter, who frequently practiced his craft on the streets. News reports cite Nick as once having been stopped for speeding on Florida's "Alligator Alley" three times in the same day. The first two times, 19 miles apart, he was clocked at 107 and 115 mph, respectively, receiving warnings both times. Three minutes later, he was ticketed for doing 123 mph. The lawsuit mentions only two of the stops, but asserts that Hulk was in the car with him at the time, and also cites several other tickets received for excessive speeding.
The lawsuit also cites Linda Bollea as condoning Nick's outlaw driving habits, quoting her as saying publicly, regarding street racing, "Oh I love it. I love it. The rush, the speed on the road, stereo blasting, heart pounding, racing in between all the cars, dodging the cops. It's awesome."
If proven, these allegations could lead to either Hulk and/or Linda being held liable for negligently allowing Nick to drive his car. But perhaps the claim against Linda might be weaker. As juicy as her quoted language might be, she was not the one who allowed Nick to drive on the day of the crash.
Nick Bollea was charged with reckless driving. He pled no contest to the charges, which is essentially equivalent to a guilty plea but is not treated as an admission of liability in a civil lawsuit. He was sentenced to eight months in jail, five years of probation with no alcohol for the entire five years, and the revocation of his driver's license until age 21.
Danny Jacobs was also charged with reckless driving, and he also pled no contest. He was sentenced to 90 days of probation and fined $500, ordered to serve 25 hours of community service, and his driver's license was suspended for 90 days.
A broken family?
In the latest twist to the story, Linda Bollea filed for a divorce. But the plaintiff's lawyers immediately labeled the divorce as a sham, intended only to protect half of the couple's assets from the lawsuit.
Although the lawsuit names both Hulk and Linda as defendants, there is a possibility that some of their assets can be shielded from the claims by the divorce. The legal claims, as described above, appear to be stronger against Hulk than they are against Linda. That is, Hulk is the only one claimed liable for providing alcohol to the drivers, lending his Viper to Jacobs, and signing Nick's license application. Since these appear to be the strongest claims, it is possible that Linda's lesser liability might be fully covered by the insurance policy.
Transferring assets to your spouse to keep them away from your creditors can be challenged as a "fraudulent conveyance," allowing the creditors to still take the assets. But a property award in a divorce proceeding is a forced division of marital assets that can escape being treated as a fraudulent conveyance, at least if the divorce is real. If Linda gets half the estate in the divorce, and if she avoids the majority of the legal liability, the divorce could just work for her.
Betting on your kids
The lesson here is that your children and other permissive users of your cars can subject you to substantial legal liability. The best defense is to be sure you have adequate insurance coverage, but the Hulk Hogan situation demonstrates that liability claims can easily exceed any available coverage.
If your state makes you liable if you sign your minor child's driver's license application, be aware of your legal exposure. It's difficult to tell your 16-year-olds that they have to wait until they're 18 to drive, but that might be the only way to fully protect yourself.
And if you have children with substance abuse problems, bad driving habits, or similar issues, be aware that letting them drive cars can create substantial legal liability on your part. In short, if you don't exercise the due diligence you should as a parent, you could face very costly consequences.