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Passenger Liability in a California Auto Accident

An interesting case was decided recently by the California Court of Appeals that dealt with the responsibility a passenger in a vehicle may face when an accident occurs. According to the facts discussed in the case of Navarrete v. Meyer (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 1276 , Hayley Meyer was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by her friend, Brandon Coleman. While driving to their destination, she told Coleman to turn on Skyview Drive. Haley Meyer was familiar with Skyview Drive, she knew it was a residential street with a 25-mph speed limit, and most importantly, she knew it had dips that would cause a vehicle that was speeding to become airborne.  She told Coleman about the dips and that it would be fun to drive at a high rate of speed on them, and he should do it. Coleman turned onto Skyview Drive, and she told him to “go faster.” He did. What happens next is no surprise, he sped up, went airborne, lost control of the car, and crashed into a parked vehicle, where a Father of three was putting his child into a car seat. He was killed by the impact.

The issue the court had to deal with was whether Haley Meyer could be sued for negligence, even though she was not actually the driver of the car. The Court ruled that she could under several different legal theories.

The first is under what is referred to as a “Concert of Action” theory. The court discussed Vehicle Code 23109(c), which criminalizes aiding and abetting the criminal charge of Exhibition of Speed.[1] The court discussed the case of Agovino v. Kunze (1960) 181 Cal.App.2d 591. Agovino was a case where two individuals, in separate vehicles, were involved in a car race. The court ruled that both could be liable for a resulting accident that occurs, which in that case dealt with one of the vehicles crashing into a third vehicle. The third vehicle could sue both parties involved in the race, even though only one vehicle made physical contact with the third party. Personally, it seems like a common sense and fundamentally fair legal principle. The court discussed:

“Indeed, the fact Meyer was a passenger in Coleman's vehicle rather than driving a separate car strengthens the inference that she encouraged and incited him, and that they jointly engaged in a series of acts that led directly to the collision with Navarrete's vehicle.” [2]

Meyer had an interesting argument against liability under an aiding and abetting theory, that liability under this theory could not occur unless there was intentional conduct, not negligence. In other words, you cannot aid and abet unintentional conduct. The court responded:

“[F]or purposes of joint liability under a concert of action theory, it suffices that Meyer assist or encourage Coleman's breach of a duty, which Vehicle Code section 23109 imposed upon him (and also upon her not to aid and abet Coleman).[3]  

The next theory that imposed liability was Vehicle Code 21701 and negligence per se. California Vehicle Code 21701 states:

“No person shall wilfully interfere with the driver of a vehicle or with the mechanism thereof in such manner as to affect the driver's control of the vehicle.  The provisions of this section shall not apply to a drivers' license examiner or other employee of the Department of Motor Vehicles when conducting the road or driving test of an applicant for a driver's license nor to a person giving instruction as a part of a course in driver training conducted by a public school, educational institution or a driver training school licensed by the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

Under the doctrine of negligence per se, if the defendant violates a law, a presumption is raised that they violated a legal duty as well. In many cases, the issue of whether the defendant breached a legal duty will be the heart of the defense. The defense will often argue that either the defendant had no legal duty n the first place, or if they did, that they acted reasonable and did not violate any duty. You will often see this n medical malpractice cases, where the issue will be whether the doctor acted reasonable under the circumstances, with the defense arguing that they complied with the applicable standard of care. Under negligence per se, if the defendant violated a statute, they are per se negligent. The defense can overcome this by showing additional facts that might justify the breach of the legal duty, it is a much tougher obstacle to overcome. The court discussed the case of Reclusado v. Mangum (1964) 228 Cal.App.2d 8, where the issue of physical interference with the driver was discussed. In that case, the defendant argued that to be found liable under Vehicle Code  21701, there had to have been physical interference with the driver with the specific intent to affect the operating of the vehicle. The court concluded:

“Applying the ordinary meaning of these words compels us to agree with Reclusado that direct physical interference is not strictly required to violate the statute: a person can interfere with a driver so as to affect the driver's control of the vehicle within the meaning of Vehicle Code section 21701 without necessarily physically touching the driver, physically hindering the driver's ability to see or drive, tampering with the vehicle, or otherwise directly affecting the vehicle's machinery.”[4]

Therefore, under Vehicle Code 21701, physical interference is not necessary for joint liability. This case provides a very interesting theory of recovery that can be applied against the passenger as well as the actual driver, assuming the facts justify it. The result of the case is clearly a sound one, for if Meyer were to escape any civil liability simply because she was not the actual driver of the car would have been an absurd result, and fundamentally unfair to the Navarrete family. This is especially the case in a situation where the driver may not have enough insurance or assets to cover the damages suffered by the victims of an accident.

[1] Vehicle Code 23109(c): A person shall not engage in a motor vehicle exhibition of speed on a highway, and a person shall not aid or abet in a motor vehicle exhibition of speed on any highway.

[2] Navarrete at 1289

[3] Navarrete at 1290

[4] Navarrete at 1296

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