Vicarious Liability of an Owner for Permissive Use in California Motor Vehicle Accidents

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law.

When I was the Assistant City Attorney of Redlands and a Deputy City Attorney in the City of San Bernardino, I handled a fair number of motor vehicle accident cases on behalf of the City and its employees.  These cases included a police officer who allegedly ran a red light, a police officer that allegedly rear-ended a car on a freeway ramp, a police officer that allegedly sideswiped a car in a carpool lane,  an animal control officer who allegedly rear ended a woman, a city employee that allegedly backed up into a man turning into his driveway, a pair of citizen volunteer patrol members who allegedly turned into a woman on a bicycle, and a parks employee who allegedly ran over a man sleeping in the park.  The injuries claimed ranged from soft tissue injuries to major hip injuries.  I also defended cities in dangerous condition of public property cases involving motor vehicles and catastrophic injuries, including the death of a motorcyclist, and another one where the passenger on a motorcycle was injured when the motorcyclist ran a stop sign.

A defense to the owner of a vehicle, where the driver and owner lack an employee-employer or principal-agent relationship, is  Vehicle Code section 17151(a).   Typically, the cases listed above involved a a employer-employee relationship. Vehicle Code section 17151(a) reads:

The liability of an owner, bailee of an owner, or personal representative of a decedent imposed by this chapter and not arising through the relationship of principal and agent or master and servant is limited to the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) for the death of or injury to one person in any one accident and, subject to the limit as to one person, is limited to the amount of thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) for the death of or injury to more than one person in any one accident and is limited to the amount of five thousand dollars ($5,000) for damage to property of others in any one accident.

Also not included within this statute is negligent entrustment or negligent maintenance of the vehicle by the owner.  There is no limit on the liability of an owner under common law.

In a very recent California Supreme Court case, the Court held that the “respondeat superior doctrine makes an employer liable, irrespective of fault, for an employee’s tortious conduct in the scope of employment.”  Diaz v. Carcamo (2011) 51 Cal.4th 1148, 126 Cal.Rptr.3d 443, 449.  “If the employee did not drive negligently, and thus is zero percent at fault, then the employer’s share of fault is zero percent. That is true even if the employer entrusted its vehicle to an employee whom it knew, or should have known, to be a habitually careless driver with a history of accidents.”  Id. at 453-454.

The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

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