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“Permissive Use” Liability for Auto Accidents (Continued)

As discussed in a previous post, motor vehicle owners may be held liable for negligent acts (and accidents) committed by third parties, if the owner granted permission for the negligent party to operate the vehicle. This liability, known as “liability for permissive use,” applies to owners (or bailees) of vehicles, but only when the vehicle was operated with the owner’s permission.


For purposes of evaluating permissive use liability, the owner’s “permission” can be either express or implied. Whether or not permission was granted is determined on a “facts and circumstances” basis, which means the trier of fact (normally the jury) will evaluate all the facts surrounding the vehicle’s use and operation and determine whether or not the owner granted the operator permission to use the vehicle. Juries (and judges, when appropriate) are permitted to draw “reasonable inferences” when evaluating the facts–meaning the inferences that reasonable people would draw, based on the surrounding facts and circumstances.


Sometimes, vehicle owners impose restrictions on third parties before allowing use of vehicles. For example, a parent may tell a teenaged child that she can drive the car to the mall and back, but may not go anywhere else. When loaning a car to a friend, a vehicle owner may restrict the operator to driving on surface streets only, or only on a certain day.

Permissive use liability is limited to use in circumstances where the use was “permitted.” However, courts do not necessarily interpret limitations on use as strictly as the vehicle owner intended. Minor violations of the permitted use–for example, a teenager who goes to a friend’s house on the way to the mall–may not be enough to cut off the vehicle owner’s liability for accidents, injuries, and damage occurring during the minor “side trip.” Once the owner grants permission for use of the vehicle, it normally takes a major (and sometimes even unlawful) departure from the permitted use to cut off the lending owner’s liability.


If the injured plaintiff fails to join (or sue) the negligent vehicle operator, the defendant vehicle owner can request, and the court will grant, a joinder bringing the negligent driver into the case. This is because the vehicle code states that (subject to jurisdictional issues) the negligent driver “shall be” joined in any permissive use liability action against a vehicle owner. (California Vehicle Code, Section 17152) Similarly, if a judgment is rendered in the case, enforcement must proceed against the negligent driver (or the driver’s insurance company) before a demand for payment is made against the vehicle’s owner. This is because, as between the owner who lent the vehicle and the negligent driver who caused (or participated in) the accident, the driver has greater, and more immediate, liability.

If you, or a vehicle you own, has been involved in an accident, consult an attorney immediately. Delay may compromise your legal rights and increase your liabilities.

If you have concerns about how lending a vehicle might impact your legal rights and obligations, consult an attorney before lending your vehicle to any person–or avoid liability for permissive use altogether by not letting anyone else operate your vehicle(s).



DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice to any person or entity, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any person or entity. Negligence law and defenses are a complex legal topic, as is vehicular liability, and no single article can provide complete or comprehensive coverage or information about this or any other legal topic or issue. Your personal liability may differ, based on your individual facts and circumstances. If you believe you have a legal claim or issue, or wish to know more about your individual rights, consult an experienced attorney without delay.

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