Law Review: Liability for letting someone drive your car
If you let someone drive your car, would you potentially be liable should they get into an accident and cause injuries? The answer is: yes.
AUTO V. PEDESTRIAN
Blake McKenna was a pedestrian lawfully crossing the street in the San Diego area when he was struck by a car driven by Ann Rogers. Rogers’ vehicle had been hit by a car owned by Lance Beesley’s corporation, Smoothreads, Inc. and driven by Ronald Wells who had run a red light. Wells hit Rogers, who hit McKenna.
Apparently Wells was a licensed building contractor but had a history of DUI arrests and did not have a driver’s license or car insurance.
The question in our case is whether Beesley and/or Smoothreads could be held responsible for Wells’ negligent driving causing injuries to McKenna. The trial court ruled against McKenna who appealed.
$15,000 LIABILITY AS VEHICLE OWNER
Section 17150 of the Vehicle Code makes owners of vehicles liable for injury or death caused as a result of a negligent driver of their vehicle as long as the driver had permission from the owner to drive the car. The car owner’s liability cap under 17150 is $15,000.
Smoothreads, as owner of the car, is clearly liable for $15,000 to McKenna as Beesley gave Wells permission to drive his car and Wells ran a red light. That one is easy. McKenna also sued Beesley for negligent entrustment of his car to Wells, which has no $15,000 limit on liability.
ENTRUSTING YOUR CAR TO AN INCOMPETENT OR RECKLESS DRIVER
In California, an owner of a vehicle who places or entrusts their vehicle with a driver who is incompetent or unfit to drive may be held liable if injuries or death were caused by the driver’s disqualification, incompetency, inexperience or recklessness. That is called “negligent entrustment”; liability is imposed on the vehicle owner for letting someone incompetent use the vehicle.
OWNER OF VEHICLE MUST ASK IF THE DRIVER HAS A LICENSE
The Vehicle Code also requires the owner of a vehicle to “make a reasonable effort” to determine whether the prospective driver has a driver’s license before allowing the driver to operate the vehicle. If they don’t ask, in this case Beesley asking Wells if he had a driver’s license, the owner may be found to have constructive (implied) knowledge of the driver’s incompetence – in other words because Beesley didn’t ask Wells, Beesley is presumed to know Wells was incompetent. Beesley is responsible for Wells’ bad driving.
The point of this column is to encourage you to be smart if you are letting someone use your car. If your driver injures someone, as car owner you are responsible for up to $15,000. But the liability is unlimited if you negligently allow someone to use your car who is incompetent or does not have a driver’s license. Worse yet, if you don’t ask if the driver is licensed you face potential liability under the Vehicle Code for the unlicensed driver’s damages.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at email@example.com or http://www.portersimon.com
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