Is it legal to leave a pintle hitch in the receptacle of a vehicle when not towing a trailer? Because something is not illegal does that mean you can’t be held responsible for injuries or damage that might occur that involve that hitch?

Regularly customers express frustration with the difference between being legally right and still being held partially responsible for an accident. Most commonly this arises in auto accidents but applies to all liability situations. The states where loses are determined by what percent each driver involved in an accident is to be held responsible for that accident are known as “comparative negligence” states. Rhode Island is one of them. That means that law suits are settled based on an assignment of a percentage of fault to the parties involved. Operating under the pretense of that law, insurance adjusters attempt to assess a percentage of liability when trying to settle a case before it goes to arbitration or to court. Once there, a third party decides the case.

Your percentage of fault is determined by assessing what each party reasonably could have done, or should have been able to do, to prevent an accident. The other guy may have been legally wrong for having gone through the stop sign, but if it is shown that you reasonably should have been able to avoid the accident, you will be held partially at fault. Remember the key phrase is what could you have reasonable done to prevent the accident and how much was your action, or lack of action, the cause of the loss.

That is a seemingly long and unrelated introduction to why you need to remove your pintle shaft from your vehicle’s mounting bracket when not towing a trailer. The older style trailer hitch was permanently attached to a vehicle; it could not be removed between uses. The current pintle hitch design for many reasons is a better option. One particular advantage is the ease by which you can remove the pintle shaft when not in use. But how many drivers actually do remove them? How many times have you heard stories of people walking through a parking lot and striking their leg against a protruding pintle hitch? Or pulling into a parking space and striking the pintle hitch.  Most assume it was their own stupidity and deal with any loss themselves. But not all…

There is no specific Rhode Island law, rule, or regulation, nor any federal motor carrier regulation that would require the pintle’s removal when not in use. I am told that when situations arise, law enforcement officers will cite operators using Title 31, subsection 31-23-1: Driving an Unsafe Motor Vehicle. They reference the portion of the regulation which in part says the vehicle “… is in such an unsafe condition as to endanger any person,…” For vehicles that fall under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, there are more general safety regulations that could be utilized but none specifically prohibiting an operator from leaving a pintle hitch in its receptor shaft.

Directions provided by the hitch manufactures recommend removing the pintle hitch when not towing a vehicle. By design they extend from the bottom of the vehicle. Their placement is not in the normal line of vision of a person walking through a parking lot. They are usually black so as to blend in with the undercarriage of the vehicle. The pavement is also dark in color adding to their visual obscurity.  At night the lack of visibility is increased adding to the potential for someone to make contact with the pintle hitch.

The legal term “Negligence” is the failure to act as a reasonably prudent person would with resulting injury arising from that failure to act. If you fail to remove your pintle hitch and someone bangs their leg against your hitch requiring medical attention, who do you think courts would side with?

In the last 3 years I have had three insureds lose when a loss has been claimed that involved a pintle style trailer hitch. In each case defense argued that it was legal to leave the hitches in place. But the negligent disregard for the safety and well being of the public caused the cases to settle in favor of the injured party. It may have been legal to act as they did, but when there is a reasonable potential for an injury to result, courts almost always going to side with the injured party.