(Owner Vehicle Liability)

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Permissive Use Statute Liability: If a motor vehicle owner gives express or implied permission to a person use a motor vehicle, and that driver wrongfully (negligently or intentionally) causes injury or death to a person or damage to property, the vehicle owner is also vicariously liable [Vehicle Code 17150].

Owner Liability Limits: Owner liability under Vehicle Code 17150 generally has a maximum dollar limit of $15,000 per injured person but $30,000 per occurrence even if more than two people are injured, and $5,000 for property damage [Vehicle Code 17151; see also Vehicle Code 17155].

Proposition 51 does not apply: The car owner's liability is not based on comparative fault rules [Civil Code 1431.2(a)].  Thus, Proposition 51, which limits the owner's noneconomic (pain and suffering) damages liability, does not apply under this statutory scheme. [Rashtian v. BRAC-BH, Inc. (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 1847, 1854]. 

Driver Liability Amount Not Limited: The permissive use statute does not cap or limit the liability amount owed by the vehicle driver, but only the vehicle owner.

Owner liability amount not limited based on other non-statutory legal theories: The permissive use statute does not limit the liability amount owed by the owner based on another viable legal theory (other than permissive use) such as, for examples, negligent entrustment to an “incompetent, reckless, or inexperienced driver” (Syah v. Johnson (1966) 247 Cal.App.2d 534, 538), employee operating vehicle within course and scope or employment (respondeat superior), and failure to properly maintain brakes (Fremont Compensation Ins. Co. v. Hartnett (1993) 19 669).

Rental car companies: "Permissive use" liability generally does not apply to an owner who is in the business of renting or leasing vehicles. [49 U.S.C. 30106]

Insurance Coverage for Permissive Users: California law generally requires that automobile insurance policies cover permissive drivers under the owner's liability policy [Insurance Code 11580.1(b)(4)] but the insurer can limit permissive user coverage by use of clear and conspicuous language to $15,000/$30,000/$5,000 [See Vehicle Code 16056; Haynes v. Farmers Insurance Exchange (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1198, 1205].

Must Sue Both Owner and User: If the injured or damaged party files a lawsuit, he or she must, in general, sue both the owner and driver for the permissive use statutes to apply [Vehicle Code 17152].

Owner and Cross-Sue User: The vehicle owner has a right to recover from the driver the amount of any judgment and costs he or she paid the injured party [Vehicle Code 17153].



Issue: Did the driver drive the car or vehicle was within the scope of the owner’s express or implied "permission"?

Plaintiff has the burden or proof: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant driver was acting with the owner's permission. [See Taylor v. Roseville Toyota, Inc. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 994, 1004-1005.

Speculation not permitted: "[P]ermission cannot be left to speculation or conjecture nor be assumed, but must be affirmatively proved, and the fact of permission is just as important to sustain the imposition of liability as is the fact of ownership." (Scheff v. Roberts (1950) 35 Cal.2d 10, 12).

Can’t Assume Permission: "The mere fact that at the time of an accident one is driving an automobile belonging to another is not, of itself, sufficient to establish that the former was driving the car with the permission of the owner." (Di Rebaylio v. Herndon (1935) 6 Cal.App.2d 567, 569).

Permission implied: Permission may be implied from the surrounding circumstances related to the vehicle’s use.

Close and Special Relationships: Relative relationships (example husband and wife, parent and child) and employer-employee (Hicks v. Reis (1943) 21 Cal.2d 654, 659), tend to strongly infer implied permission. [See Taylor v. Roseville (2006) 138 CA4th 994,1006-1007 C.A.C.I. 720]

"Where the issue of implied permissive use is involved, the general relationship existing between the owner and the operator, is of paramount importance. Where, for example, the parties are related by blood, or marriage, or where the relationship between the owner and the operator is that of principal and agent, weaker direct evidence will support a finding of such use than where the parties are only acquaintances or strangers." (Elkinton v. California State Automobile Assn., Interstate Insurance Bureau (1959) 173 Cal.App.2d 338, 344 [343 P.2d 396])

Contractual Relations: Permission is far less likely to be implied where the relationship is based solely upon contract. [Baker v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 143 Fed.3d 1260, 1264-1265 (9th Circuit 1998)].

Third Persons / Sub-Permitees: “If the vehicle owner (Person #1) gave another (Person #2) permission to use the vehicle, and that second person authorizes a third person (sub-permittee, Person #3) to operate the vehicle, the owner (Person#1) is generally considered to have given implied permission to use the vehicle the third person (Person #3).  [Peterson v. Grieger, Inc. (1961) 57 Cal.2d 43, 54].

Restricted permission: Permission may expressly or impliedly be unlimited or restricted (as to time, place or purpose). If restricted, the question is…Did the driver substantially deviate from those restrictions? [See Peterson v. Grieger, Inc.(1961) 57 Cal.2d 43. See C.A.C.I. 721].



 Vehicle Code Section 17150:

"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 erson using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of the owner."

Vehicle Code section 17151(a):

"The liability of an owner . . . is limited to the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) for the death of or injury to one person . . . and . . . to the amount of thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) for the death of or injury to more than one person . . . and is limited to the amount of five thousand dollars ($5,000) for damage to property."

Related Topics:

Parent Liability in California

  Going and Coming Rule / Exceptions

  Franchisor Tort Liability

Disclaimer: This is a general article.  This area of the law can be complex.  Many issues can arise that were not discussed.  This article is not to be relied on a legal advice.  If you desire legal advice, consult or retain a lawyer regarding the specifics of your situation. Further Disclaimer

 Author: Attorney Matthew B. Tozer
Copyright 2012

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