California law imposes financial liability on the owner of a vehicle involved in a car accident, truck accident, motorcycle accident, or other accident involving a motor vehicle, even if the owner was not driving or in the vehicle at the time of the accident. To refresh your memory of a previous blog post (see Owner’s Liability When Someone Else is Driving), the owner is financially liable for no more than $15,000 for an individual’s personal injury or death and no more than $30,000 for all victims’ personal injuries or deaths in an accident where the owner was not driving the vehicle, but rather gave permission to the negligent driver who caused the accident. While determining who the owner of a vehicle is at the time of the accident is relatively uncomplicated, there are certain situations where the identity of the owner may not be clear and thus certain inquiries must be made to determine the correct owner. A common example of this is when the transfer of the vehicle takes place immediately before the accident and documentation had not been processed with the DMV. Just because the DMV still lists a particular individual as the registered owner of the car at the time of the accident, if the full and final transfer of the vehicle occurred before the accident, the transferee is considered the owner, even though a DMV report would indicate otherwise. For the old owner to escape liability in this situation, it is imperative to make sure he/she strictly complied with the requirements of Vehicle Code Section 5602. Another issue in dealing with an auto accident where the owner of the vehicle is not the driver is determining whether the driver had the owner’s permission to drive the owner’s vehicle. This is a very important concept to appreciate. Just because someone owns a vehicle that is involved in a personal injury accident does not mean that the owner is statutorily liable for the damage limitations identified above. California Jury Instructions 720 require a finding of three elements to impose liability on the owner: 1) The driver was negligent in operating the vehicle involved in the accident 2) the accused owner was in fact the owner at the time of the injury and 3) the accused owner, by his/her words or conduct, gave permission to the driver to use the vehicle. A trier of fact is allowed to consider the relationship between the owner and driver when direct evidence of permission (also known as “explicit permission”) is in dispute. It certainly appears more likely that permission was granted if the owner and driver are married, close friends, or had an employer/employee relationship. A trier of fact is allowed to reasonably conclude that permission was granted even if the owner denies it and there is no direct evidence that permission was specifically given prior to the accident. This is called “implied permission,” in that it can be implied, perhaps due to the relationship or prior interactions between the parties, that permission was given, even though it wasn’t specifically stated. The reason why the owner of the vehicle is financially responsible for personal injuries or the wrongful death of an accident victim is summed up very well by the court in Tuderios v. Hertz Drivurself Stations, Inc. (1945) where the court opined that “[s]ince defendant [car owner] had the opportunity of making such investigation as he deemed necessary to satisfy himself as to the identity of the [renter] to whom he intrusted his automobile, he should not be permitted to escape liability to a third party because of any fraudulent misrepresentation made by the renter of the car to him.” Contact our personal injury accident lawyer if you have been involved in a car, truck or motorcycle accident.
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