What if You're Injured in a Car Accident When the Owner Isn't Driving?

July 6, 2018

Almost all drivers let their family members borrow their cars at some point. Whether a teen has just started driving or an owner regularly gives permission to a spouse, sibling, or other non-owner to take the car for a spin, accident victims need to know what might happen in a crash with a non-owner behind the wheel. These types of cases can involve vicarious liability, negligent entrustment, permissive use, and other such laws. The rules change from state to state, but here’s what California’s laws say about this unique – but not uncommon – scenario.

Does California Use the “Family Purpose” Doctrine?

The “family purpose” doctrine is a legal rule that can create vicarious liability where otherwise none would exist. “Vicarious liability” refers to the legal responsibility of a supervisory party – such as an employer or parent – over the actions and behaviors of subordinates based on the relationship between the two parties. The family purpose doctrine specifically relates to vicarious liability in auto accidents in which a family member of the owner crashes the car.
According to the family purpose doctrine, the owner of the automobile will be the one liable for damages, regardless of whether the family member driving the car had the owner’s permission or not. In other words, the parent will be vicariously liable for the actions of the child in this particular situation. The theory stems from the assumption that the owner has the vehicle for “family purposes.” In California, however, liability will not automatically land on the owner of the vehicle.
The family purpose doctrine is not something that California courts have ever upheld during personal injury claims. Instead, California is a fault or tort car accident state. This means, in most cases, the person who is at fault for causing the accident will be responsible for paying the damages. If the at-fault party is not the owner of the vehicle, the owner will generally not be liable. The individual driver that caused the crash will be the person paying for your damages, through his/her insurance company.

When Might You Hold the Vehicle’s Owner Responsible?

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. If you suffered injuries in an accident with a non-owner operating the other vehicle, it may be possible to hold the owner responsible in certain situations. For example, if the true owner was negligent or irresponsible in some way that caused or contributed to the crash, the owner could share liability. This might be the case if the parents of a minor driver knew or should have known that the minor was likely to engage in risky behavior, such as drunk driving or speeding (“negligent entrustment”).
A crash victim might also have the power to hold the vehicle owner liable under California Vehicle Code Section 17150. This is the state’s “permissive use” statute, which states that vehicle owners are liable for damages to a person that result from the negligence of another person operating the vehicle with the owner’s permission. Note, however, that the law limits a vehicle owner’s liability to $15,000 for death or injury to one person and $30,000 to multiple people in these situations.
Determining culpability for your car accident can get even more complicated when someone other than the owner of the vehicle causes your crash. It’s up to you to seek legal counsel regarding liability, fault, and negligence for these types of collisions. Only a lawyer can help you fully understand your options in terms of filing an insurance claim against a teen’s parents, someone’s employer, a family member of the driver, and/or another party in California. Before you contact an insurance company and file your claim, consult with an attorney to make sure you have the right defendant.
If you are a victim and are injured in a motor vehicle accident in California, contact the San Diego accident attorneys at Estey & Bomberger, LLP about your case today! (619) 295-0035