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Negligent Entrustment

car accident
Negligent entrustment of motor vehicles is a claim that creates a responsibility on the owner of a vehicle for her or his wrongful act in allowing a vehicle to be operated by someone who is incompetent to operate it and when that driver causes an injury to another substantially due to that incompetence.

Proving Negligent Entrustment in California

To prove negligent entrustment in California, an injured person from a motor vehicle collision will have to prove that she or he was harmed because the vehicle owner negligently permitted the driver to use the owner's vehicle.

To establish this claim, one must prove the following:

  • That the driver was negligent in operating the vehicle.  In other words, that the driver committed a wrongful act such as speeding, running a red light, unsafely changing lanes, or some similarly unsafe or wrongful action.
  • That someone other than the driver is the owner of the vehicle, and that the owner knowingly gave the driver permission to drive her or his vehicle.  This point is key because if the driver did not have permission to use the vehicle, the owner is not responsible for any subsequent negligent or wrongful acts by the driver because the owner may not have been aware that the vehicle was being borrowed.
  • That the owner of the vehicle knew or should have known that the driver was unfit or incompetent to drive the vehicle.  For example, if the owner knew that the driver was intoxicated or under the influence, and still permitted use of the vehicle, the owner may also be responsible for any harm done by the driver because the owner knew, or should have known, that the driver should not have been given permission to use a vehicle.  Similarly, if the owner knew, or should have known that the driver has a long and extensive history of violating vehicle codes such as speeding or reckless driving, the owner may again be responsible for the driver's poor driving because the owner knew that the driver wasn't a safe driver.  Again, if the owner knew that the driver did not have a driver's license, or that it was suspended, and the driver was still permitted use of the owner's vehicle that may make the owner responsible. Here again, the owner may be responsible for the driver's wrongful acts because the owner should not have given the driver permission to operate his or her vehicle because the driver was either not properly licensed and/or experienced to operate the owner's motor vehicle.
  • And a final factor: the driver's incompetence or unfitness was a substantial factor in causing the collision.  In other words, assuming the owner of the vehicle knew or should have known that the driver wasn't properly licensed, or inexperienced, or intoxicated, or reckless, and that same factor was the cause or a substantial contributing factor to the occurrence of the incident, then the owner will likely also bear responsibility for the incident along with the driver.

The above factors are outlined in a Negligent Entrustment Jury Instruction that is often used as a template to instruct juries in California court trials.  In California, the specific instruction is known as Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instruction no. 724.

Negligent Entrustment Verdict Form is also frequently used to instruct juries following court cases on how to award damages in court trials.  In California, it is known as Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instruction no. VF-704.

Negligent Entrustment - California Vehicle Codes

The California Legislature has set into law several vehicle code sections within the California Vehicle Codes, which specifically outline when an owner of a motor vehicle may be liable for negligently entrusting a vehicle.  These code sections, and certain court decisions interpreting same, include:

California Vehicle Code Section 14604:

"(a) No owner of a motor vehicle may knowingly allow another person to drive the vehicle upon a highway unless the owner determines that the person possesses a valid driver's license that authorizes the person to operate the vehicle. For the purposes of this section, an 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. An owner is not required to inquire of the department whether the prospective driver possesses a valid driver's license."

Here, California Vehicle Codes place a duty on vehicle owners to avoid knowingly allowing someone to drive a vehicle if that individual does not possess a valid driver's license.  If a vehicle owner knows or should know that the driver does not possess a valid driver's license and that individual causes a motor vehicle collision, the owner of the vehicle may also be negligent and responsible for negligently entrusting the vehicle to the unlicensed driver.

California courts have stated that it is a question left for a jury as to whether a vehicle owner has acted reasonably when determining negligent entrustment.

"Liability for negligent entrustment is determined by applying general principles of negligence, and ordinarily, it is for the jury to determine whether the owner has exercised the required degree of care." (Allen v. Toledo (1980) 109 Cal.App.3d 415, 421)

It is also important to keep in mind that a driver merely not having a proper license is not enough to sustain a claim of negligent entrustment against a vehicle owner.  It must also be proven that the vehicle owner knew, or should have known that the driver lacked the requisite abilities, knowledge, and skill that necessitates such licensing.  California courts have stated that "the tort (of negligent entrustment) requires demonstration of actual knowledge of facts showing or suggesting the driver's incompetence—not merely his lack of a license. For liability to exist, knowledge must be shown of the user's incompetence or inability safely to use the [vehicle]." (Dodge Center v. Superior Court (1988)199 Cal.App.3d 332, 341)

Courts have also spoken concerning temporary permits: "Knowledge of possession of a temporary permit allowing a person to drive only if accompanied by a licensed driver is sufficient to put the entrustor upon inquiry as to the competency of the unlicensed driver. It is then for the jury to determine under the circumstances whether the entrustor is negligent in permitting the unlicensed driver to operate the vehicle." (Nault v. Smith (1961)194 Cal.App.2d 257, 267–268 [14 Cal.Rptr. 889])

Negligent Entrustment - Sales of Vehicles

Concerning the sale of a vehicle, courts have opined that merely selling a vehicle to an inexperienced or unlicensed driver is not enough for a claim of negligent entrustment, "plaintiff must prove defendant had knowledge of plaintiff's incompetence when entrusting the vehicle." (Blake v. Moore (1984) 162 Cal.App.3d 700, 706 [208Cal.Rptr. 703]).

"The mere sale of an automobile to an unlicensed and inexperienced person does not constitute negligence per se." (Perez v. G & W Chevrolet, Inc. (1969) 274 Cal.App.2d 766, 768 [79 Cal.Rptr. 287]).

Employer Liability for Negligent Entrustment

Determining whether an employer may be negligent for entrusting a vehicle to an unfit or incompetent driver similarly revolves around notions of negligent hiring, training, and supervision.

Courts have stated in essence that a claim that an employer was negligent in hiring or retaining an employee-driver rarely differs in substance from a claim that an employer was negligent in entrusting a vehicle to the employee. Awareness, constructive or actual, that a person is unfit or incompetent to drive underlies a claim that an employer was negligent in hiring or retaining that person as a driver.

For negligent entrustment employer liability, the crux again largely revolves around whether an employer knowingly permitted an employee, determined to be incompetent, the use of a vehicle. "It is well-settled that where a company knows that an employee lacks a  license that such knowledge is sufficient to put the employer on inquiry as to his competency; it is for the jury to determine under such circumstances whether the employer was negligent in permitting the employee to drive a vehicle." (Syah v. Johnson (1966) 247 Cal.App.2d 534, 545 [55Cal.Rptr. 741])

California Vehicle Code Section 14606 specifically addresses the issue that employers may not allow unlicensed or improperly licensed drivers to operate vehicles:

  • A person shall not employ, hire, knowingly permit, or authorize any person to drive a motor vehicle owned by him or her or under his or her control upon the highways unless that person is licensed for the appropriate class of vehicle to be driven.
  • Whenever a person fails to qualify, on reexamination, to operate a commercial motor vehicle, an employer shall report that failure to the department within 10 days.
  • An employer shall obtain from a driver required to have a commercial driver's license or commercial endorsement a copy of the driver's medical certification before allowing the driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle. The employer shall retain the certification as part of a driver qualification file.

It is important to keep in mind that if involved in a motor vehicle collision caused by another, an investigation should be completed to determine if the person at fault was not only employed at the time of the incident but also if the employer negligently entrusted the driver to operate a vehicle that the driver was unfit to drive.

Duties and Facts Concerning Driver Licensing

California Vehicle Code Section 14607 discusses the duty of ensuring that one's child, ward, or employee be properly licensed:

No person shall cause or knowingly permit his child, ward, or employee under the age of 18 years to drive a motor vehicle upon the highways unless such child, ward, or employee is then licensed under this code.

California Vehicle Code Section 14607.4 further details facts concerning unlicensed drivers in California:

  • Driving a motor vehicle on the public streets and highways is a privilege, not a right.
  • Of all drivers involved in fatal accidents, more than 20 percent are not licensed to drive. A driver with a suspended license is four times as likely to be involved in a fatal accident as a properly licensed driver.
  • At any given time, it is estimated by the Department of Motor Vehicles that of some 20 million driver's licenses issued to Californians, 720,000 are suspended or revoked. Furthermore, 1,000,000 persons are estimated to be driving without ever having been licensed at all.
  • Over 4,000 persons are killed in traffic accidents in California annually, and another 330,000 persons suffer injuries.
  • Californians who comply with the law are frequently victims of traffic accidents caused by unlicensed drivers. These innocent victims suffer considerable pain and property loss at the hands of people who flaunt the law. The Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that 75 percent of all drivers whose driving privilege has been withdrawn continue to drive regardless of the law.
  • It is necessary and appropriate to take additional steps to prevent unlicensed drivers from driving, including the civil forfeiture of vehicles used by unlicensed drivers. The state has a critical interest in enforcing its traffic laws and in keeping unlicensed drivers from illegally driving. Seizing the vehicles used by unlicensed drivers serves a significant governmental and public interest, namely the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of Californians from the harm of unlicensed drivers, who are involved in a disproportionate number of traffic incidents, and the avoidance of the associated destruction and damage to lives and property.
Rental Company Liability - Negligent Entrustment

California vehicle codes require rental companies to ensure that renters are licensed:

California Vehicle Code Section 14608.

(a) A person shall not rent a motor vehicle to another person unless both of the following requirements have been met:

  • The person to whom the vehicle is rented is licensed under this code or is a nonresident who is licensed under the laws of the state or country of his or her residence.
  • The person renting to another person has inspected the driver's license of the person to whom the vehicle is to be rented and compared either the signature thereon with that of the person to whom the vehicle is to be rented or the photograph thereon with the person to whom the vehicle is to be rented.

(b) This section does not prohibit a blind or disabled person who is a nondriver from renting a motor vehicle if both of the following conditions exist at the time of rental:

  • The blind or disabled person either holds an identification card issued pursuant to this code or is not a resident of this state.
  • The blind or disabled person has a driver present who is either licensed to drive a vehicle pursuant to this code or is a nonresident licensed to drive a vehicle pursuant to the laws of the state or country of the driver's residence.

"[I]t is generally recognized that one who places or entrusts his or her motor vehicle in the hands of one whom he or she knows, or from the circumstances is charged with knowing, is incompetent or unfit to drive, may be held liable for an injury inflicted by the use made thereof by that driver, provided the plaintiff can establish that the injury complained of was proximately caused by the driver's disqualification, incompetency, inexperience or recklessness." (Flores v. Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co. (2010) 188Cal.App.4th 1055)

"A rental car company may be held liable for negligently entrusting one of its cars to a customer. . . . In determining whether a defendant was negligent in entrusting its car to [the driver], defendant's conduct is to be measured by what an ordinarily prudent person would do in similar circumstances." (Osborn v.Hertz Corp. (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d 703, 709 [252 Cal.Rptr. 613]

Conclusion

When an auto collision occurs, the focus is generally on the at-fault driver.  But, it is important to also investigate vehicle ownership, and determine whether that vehicle was negligently entrusted to the negligent driver.  An experienced and knowledgeable personal injury attorney will know to examine and investigate all aspects important and relevant to a car accident claim.

Sacramento Car Accident Lawyer

I'm Ed Smith, a car accident lawyer in Sacramento. If you or a family member has suffered severe injuries in an accident caused by a negligent driver, call me for free, friendly advice at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400.

We are members of the National Association of Distinguished Counsel and the Million Dollar Advocates Forum.

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