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Motor Vehicle Owner Liability

California law imposes financial liability on the owner of a vehicle involved in an accident, even if the owner wasn’t driving or wasn’t in the vehicle at the time the accident happened. According to California Vehicle Code Section 17150 vehicle owner is liable for damages to another people, which result from the negligence of another person operating the vehicle with the owner’s permission. The law limits a vehicle owner’s liability to $15,000 for injury or death to one person and $30,000 to several people. Property damage liability is limited to $5,000.

Elements the Plaintiff Must Prove

The plaintiff claims that he was harmed and the defendant is liable for the harm because he gave a driver permission to operate the vehicle. According to CACI 720 to establish this claim, the plaintiff must be able to prove all of the following elements:

  • The driver was negligent in operating the vehicle
  • Defendant was the owner of the vehicle at the time of the injury to the plaintiff
  • Defendant by his words or conduct, gave permission to the driver to use the vehicle. Permission cannot be left to conjecture nor be assumed; it must be affirmatively proved.

Explicit and Implied Permission

When the direct evidence of permission (also known as “explicit permission”) is in dispute it is allowed to consider the relationship between the owner and the driver. It is more likely that the permission was granted in case the owner and driver were married, had an employer/employee relationship or were close friends. A trier of fact is allowed to reasonably conclude that the driver gave his permission even if he denies it and there is no direct evidence that permission was granted prior to the accident. This is called “implied permission”.

The Driver Exceeded the Scope of the Permission Given by the Defendant

According to CACI 721 in case the defendant claims that he is not responsible the plaintiff’s harm he must be able to prove the following elements:

  • Defendant by words or conduct, gave permission to the driver to use the vehicle for a limited time, place, or purpose
  • The driver’s use of the vehicle substantially violated the time, place, or purpose specified.

Thus, in case the defendant gave his permission for a limited time, and the driver used the vehicle after the expiration of the period without consent, the owner can’t be found liable for any caused injuries, unless the circumstances show an inference of implied consent to further use.

Driver Was Acting on Behalf of the Owner

In case the driver was acting on behalf of the owner, (for example, they were in employment relationship), then the limitations of damages under Vehicle Code Section 17515(a) doesn’t apply. The owner of the vehicle can be held responsible for all the damages and injuries caused by the negligent conduct of the driver.

The Owner Acted with Independent Negligence

According to California Vehicle Code Section 14604(a) before lending a vehicle to another one the owner is required to make a reasonable effort to determine if the driver has a valid driver’s license. Thus, in case the owner of the vehicle acted with independent negligence by lending his car to another person, the damage limitation isn’t applicable.

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