Understanding the Rights, Duties and Obligations When a California Car Accident Involves a Non-Owner Driver

If someone else was driving your car when the accident happened, can you be held liable?

So let’s talk about the liability of a vehicle owner when someone other than the owner is using the car with the owner’s permission. Under California law, there are different rules for different circumstances. A car owner can allow another licensed driver to use the car. However, the owner can be responsible for an accident caused by the borrowing driver. California Vehicle Code section 17150 states:

"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."

So if a car is lent, then the owner can be held responsible for the accident. This is called “permissive use”.

Related Article:

Someone Drove Your Car and was in an Accident. What Should You Do?

Vehicle Owners Typically Have Limited Liability

Permissive users who get in accidents when using another’s car do not leave the owner liable for unlimited damages. There are liability limitations for the owner of a vehicle, under certain circumstances. For example, if the driver is acting for him or herself when the automobile accident occurs, the owner’s liability is limited to $15,000 for injury or death to one person, or $30,000 if the accident causes injuries to more than one person. California Vehicle Code section 17151(a) provides, in part:

"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.“

Additionally, property damage liability is limited to five thousand dollars ($5,000).

However, Owners Can Still Be Found Negligent for Violating the Law

The same damage limitation is not applicable for the independent negligence of the owner of the vehicle. Fremont Compensation Insurance Co. v. Hartnett (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 669, 675-676. For example, if a vehicle owner lends his vehicle to an unlicensed driver, this act is not only a violation of law [Vehicle Code sec. 14604 (a)] but is also independent negligence. Thus, the liability limitation does not apply. So before lending a vehicle to another person, the owner “is required only to make a reasonable effort or inquiry to determine whether the prospective driver possesses a valid driver's license before allowing him or her to operate the owner's vehicle.” Vehicle Code sec. 14604 (a). Another example is when the vehicle owner knows the car has a defect, yet lends the car knowing the car may not be safe to drive. A final example is when a parent allows an unlicensed child to drive the parent’s vehicle. Vehicle Code sec. 14607.

Other Exceptions to the Limitation of Damages

Let's change the circumstance. If the user of the car is in the employment of the owner of the vehicle, or the driver is running an errand for the owner of the vehicle or for another, then the limitations on damages does not apply. The vehicle owner could be held responsible for all injuries and damages caused by the negligence of the driver. See our video on employer responsibility for the employee's accident.

Contact Our Attorneys for Help After Your Accident

If you are injured in a car accident, you should consult with a personal injury lawyer at the Inland Empire Law Group to determine who has responsibility for your injuries and accident. Understanding who may be responsible is the key to maximizing your recovery for injuries from an accident with a non-owner driver. From our office in Rancho Cucamonga we serve all of the Inland Empire and High Desert areas. Call us now for an informative, yet free consultation. 909-481-0100. Don't delay learning about your rights.