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Have you ever signaled with your arm and hand to another driver that they may proceed (utilizing the “go ahead” waiving motion)?  But assume that the driver relies on your signal, then proceeds, and then is suddenly struck by another car.  In that case, may you be held liable for negligently gesturing to the other car driver to proceed when it was not safe to do so?

The California appellate case of Gilmer v. Ellington [(2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 190] addresses that question.  The appellate court held that, in a left turn situation, the driver giving the “go ahead” signal to the left turning driver was not negligent as a matter of law.  

However, this California appellate court holding only addressed only left turn scenarios under a specific set of facts.   Therefore, there are very likely instances where a motorist could be held liable for negligent signaling in California.  

The facts in Gilmer are as follows:

This was a intersectional (T-sectional) collision.   The collision occurred on Lincoln Boulevard and Nelrose Avenue in Venice, California.  

You can obtain a aerial view of this intersection (T Section) by going to this Google Maps link, then fully zoom in, and then press "Satellite" view.

Southbound Driver A pulled into a left turn pocket to turn left.  She was talking on her cell phone.

Northbound Driver B stopped in the Number 1 (fast) lane just before entering the intersection.  [Driver B stopped presumably to allow Driver A to turn left].  Driver B gave Driver A the "go-ahead" gesture.

Relying on Driver B's signal, Driver A commenced her left turn.

Meanwhile, Northbound Driver C (a motorcyclist), who had the right-of-way, was traveling in the Number 2 (slow) lane.  The motorcyclist entered the intersection and was struck by Driver A's left turning car.

The injured motorcyclist, Driver C, sued both Drive A (the left turning driver).  He further sued Driver B for negligently signaling Driver A to turn left without first ascertaining that Driver A could proceed safely in front of all oncoming traffic.

The appellate court ruled that under California law [Vehicle Code 21801(a)], the left-turning driver has a duty to ascertain throughout the entire turning maneuver whether it is reasonably safe to make the turn.   Further, the appellate court held that the signaling Driver B was under no legal duty to ascertain whether all other lanes were clear before signaling.  Just because one driver in one lane yields the right-of-way does not mean that another driver in another lane will likewise yield.  

A number of years ago, I represented a plaintiff in a nearly identical case.  Although the attorneys for the three drivers did not have the benefit of the Gilmer case holding, we reached essentially the same conclusion, and the case settled before the trial date.

One should exercise cicumspection, diligence and caution before deciding to signal another driver to proceed.  Despite the case holding above which exonerated the signaling driver, there are certain traffic situations where such signaling could render you liable for negligent signaling.  The Gilmer case was limited to the its facts and to left turn scenarios.  Further, if you receive a "go ahead" signal, don't rely it without also verifying with your own eyes that the way is safe.

Note: Many other states appellate courts have confronted this same issue, and there is a distinct split of authority.  Some states impose liability for negligently giving the “go ahead” signal, while other states don’t impose liability for such gestures.  

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Author: Matthew Tozer, Esq.