Vicarious Liability in California

teen driver texts while driving creates vicarious liability situation

Someone who has been negligent and caused an accident has created tort liability for themselves. Vicarious liability is a legal doctrine applicable in the state of California that creates liability for a person who did not actually cause the injury but who has a special relationship with the one who did, such as:

  • Parent-Child
  • Employer-Employee
  • Agent-Principal
  • Owner of vehicle-Driver

Vicarious liability is also referred to as the Family Purpose Doctrine, Respondeat Superior and imputed negligence. Without this relationship, the negligence of one person cannot be transferred to another.

Impact on Teen Driving Accidents

Children generally do not have any resources to support a claim of liability; therefore their parents are liable for their actions. California has created statutes to cover these scenarios. The first, California Vehicle Code Section 17707 says:

Any civil liability of a minor arising out of his driving a motor vehicle…is hereby imposed upon the person who signed and verified the application of the minor for a license, and the person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages proximately resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of the minor in driving a motor vehicle.

Since, in California, the parent or legal guardian must sign a driver’s license application for any minor who is under 18, section 17707 essentially spells out civil liability for that parent or guardian if the minor causes a car accident. This may come as good news if you’ve been injured in an accident caused by a teen driver and are concerned about compensation.

The very next code section (California Vehicle Code section 17708) holds a parent potentially liable for all foreseeable damages any time they give express or implied permission for a minor to drive a vehicle (whether or not the minor is actually a licensed driver) and the minor ends up causing a car accident. It’s important to differentiate these driving-related statutes from the “willful misconduct” statute, in terms of the minor’s actions and the potential damages that could be available to the person who is suing for injuries.

Vicarious liability for the willful misconduct of a child has been codified into California Civil Code Section 1714.1 which says that any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person or of any damage to the property of another, shall be imputed (transferred) to the parent or guardian. The statute goes on to state that the custodial parent or guardian is jointly liable, along with the minor, for any damages resulting from the minor’s willful misconduct, for an amount not to exceed $25,000 for each wrongful act (Note: This amount is adjusted every two years based on the cost of living and other factors).

Vicarious Liability of Vehicle Owner

Another common example of imputed negligence is attributing liability to the owner of a car where the driver of the car committed a negligent act. When this occurs with parent and child, this type of relationship has also been labeled “Family Purpose Doctrine” and it is based upon the assumption that the parents or heads of the household provide a vehicle for the family’s use. Therefore, the operator is the “agent” for family purposes so when the child drives the car, the principal (parent) is liable.

The same principle applies, however, when you simply lend your vehicle to a friend. Again, the driver of the car is acting as the agent of the owner and any liability that ensues is shared between the owner of the vehicle and the driver. For example, your friend asks to take your car to the store around the corner and return immediately. While out, your friend rear-ends another vehicle and injures the driver. You are responsible for your friend’s negligence.

Employer Liability for Negligent Employee

The doctrine of Respondeat Superior–which is Latin for “let the master answer”–imputes liability to the employer for the negligence of his/her employees. This does not eliminate the responsibility of the employee, it merely adds another responsible party. For example, if the driver of a grocery delivery truck runs a stop sign and hits a mini-van in which a family is driving injuring all passengers and killing the driver, the grocery delivery company and the employee driver will be responsible for the damages if the driver is found to be negligent. This doctrine is of particular significance because it is of a category referred to as “strict liability.” This means that the company is automatically liable if the driver is liable.

Negligence is a fairly straightforward concept that gets a little more complicated when vicarious liability is factored in. But adding the number of parties who may be liable for an accident may increase your chances of getting sufficient compensation.

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