In March of 2020, a customer took his Jeep to Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Rochester, Michigan for an oil change. That’s when tragedy struck. According to FOX 2 Detroit, a 19-year-old dealership employee got behind the wheel of the Jeep and accidentally ran over another employee, 42-year-old Jeffrey Hawkins, who died instantly. Now, Hawkins’ family is suing the Jeep owner—not because that person held any responsibility for this tragedy, but because that’s the family’s only path for recourse under Michigan law.
By all accounts, this was an avoidable tragedy. As FOX 2 Detroit reports, the 19-year-old employee did not have a driver’s license and did not know how to drive a manual-transmission vehicle. When the employee got in the Jeep to start the engine, he took his foot off the clutch pedal and the Jeep began moving, striking and killing Hawkins.
“He was an excellent man,” David Femminineo, an attorney for Hawkins’ family, told FOX 2. “The two-year-old, who was about one at the time of the accident, the time of the death—he’ll never know his father.”
Hawkins was married with four children, and had worked for years as a mechanic.
As Femminineo explained to Jalopnik, the Hawkins family can’t directly sue the dealership or its management. Michigan workers’ compensation law says you cannot sue a fellow employee for negligence while on the job. So the Hawkins family’s only option was to sue the Jeep owner. But that doesn’t mean the Jeep owner will be held responsible for the accidental death.
According to Femminineo, when the Hawkins family filed suit against the Jeep owner, that person immediately sued the dealership for indemnification, and won. With that victory in place, whatever results from the Hawkins family’s suit against the Jeep owner will be the legal responsibility of Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge (and their insurance company). Basically, while the owner of the Jeep is named in the suit, that person won’t face any repercussions from the trial or judgment.
According to Femminineo, the trial is set for May 20 in Oakland County, Michigan. The family is seeking $15 million in damages.
Why did Rochester Hills Chrysler Dodge Jeep hire a 19-year-old with no driver’s license, or let that employee assist with service-department work that clearly required driving skills that person lacked? That remains an open question. Jalopnik has reached out to Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge for comment, but did not receive a response by press time. If we hear back from the dealership, we will update this article.