This scenario is not that unusual– a vehicle owner lets someone else use the motor vehicle, without the owner also traveling in the car. An accident occurs, perhaps caused by the car user. What is the potential liability of the motor vehicle owner? The owner of the vehicle involved in an auto accident may have liability or exposure, even if the vehicle owner
Under the law in California, it depends critically upon whether the car’s operator was granted permission to use the vehicle, or whether the car was taken (not necessarily stolen) or used by another, without the express permission of the vehicle owner.
If the car’s was operated with the vehicle owner’s permission, the driver becomes what is called a “permissive user.” Under Vehicle Code section 17150, the vehicle’s owner is responsible for injuries, property damage or loss of life caused by the vehicle’s user:
“Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of the owner.”
The vehicle owner’s liability is limited to $15,000, pursuant to Vehicle Code section 17151(a):
“(a) 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.”
If, on the other hand, the car was not being used “permissively,” either by being stolen or else the situation does not exist where the vehicle owner permitted the vehicle’s driver to use the vehicle, for example, perhaps a relative’s friend was operating the car, no liability should follow.
Beware, however, that there are scenarios where the liability of the vehicle owner may be much greater than the 15,000 statutory limit. If the vehicle driver was an employee or an agent of the vehicle owner (for example, running an errand for the vehicle’s owner), additional liability may follow. Liability may even be increased if the vehicle operator was under the control of a family member, or if the driver was an extended family member:
“In addition to permissive use a plaintiff must also prove either employment of the operator by the owner, or that the operator was a member of the family group of the owner, or was operating the car under the control of or for a member of the family group of the owner in order to justify the inference of agency.” (Soils v. Oilfield Trucking (1979) 90 Cal. App. 3d 349; 153 Cal. Rptr. 371.)
It is very important, if there is an accident involving your vehicle, for you to be aware of the permissive user liability statute and be certain under what capacity the driver was operating the vehicle.