Sometimes, the owner of a vehicle (if different from the driver) can be held responsible, through a doctrine called vicarious liability. If the driver was working, the employer may be held liable via the doctrine of respondeat superior. Alternatively, injured persons could claim negligent hiring, retention or supervision. If the driver was a drunk minor, the establishment that served him alcohol could be responsible under Florida’s dram shop law.
And in some instances, a passenger may in fact be liable as well. Generally, this involves cases where a passenger in some way negligently asserted or assumed control over vehicle operations.
One example was recently considered by the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One. In Navarrete v. Meyer, the widow of a man killed in a crash is seeking joint liability from both the driver that struck her husband, as well as the front seat passenger who was in the car with the at-fault driver.
This tragic wrongful death case unfolded in November 2009. Defendant driver was operating his vehicle on the way to a local drug store. Defendant passenger was in the front seat, and another passenger was also in the back seat.
As they drove, defendant passenger instructed defendant driver to turn onto a side street to take a short cut. This was a residential street where the speed limit was just 25-mph. Defendant passenger had been on the street numerous times and was aware that it had a number of dips that would result in the car becoming airborne if traveled at a high rate of speed.
When defendant driver turned onto the street, defendant passenger informed him of the dips, told him it was “fun” to go fast and encouraged him to do it. She further instructed, “Go faster!” Defendant driver asked the back seat passenger if he should do it. Back seat passenger was wary, and told driver he could damage his car if he did so.
Nonetheless, driver accelerated his speed. He caught air from the dips in the road. He lost control of his car.
Meanwhile, decedent was helping place one of his children into a car seat of his vehicle, parked at the side of the road.
The out-of-control vehicle struck the father. The impact of the crash severed his legs, and he was killed.
Authorities estimated the speed at impact was 81-miles-per-hour.
Defendant passenger conceded it was her idea to drive fast on that road.
Decedent’s widow sued both the driver and passenger. Against the passenger, she alleged willful interference with the driver or the mechanism of the vehicle in such a manner as to affect driver’s control. She further asserted passenger’s acts caused a lapse in driver’s control resulting in serious injury or death. She also alleged conspiracy between the passenger and driver – a formed oral or implied agreement to commit a wrongful act (i.e., driving down the residential street at high rates of speed).
Defendant passenger filed for summary judgment, alleging the complaint was without merit and she had not interfered with driver’s control of the vehicle in a way that would be necessary to prove conspiracy or establish liability for the crash. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment for defendant.
The appeals court reversed.
While the court did not find defendant passenger was in fact negligent, it did rule plaintiff possessed evidence requiring the fact-weighing procedures of a trial.
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Navarrete v. Meyer, June 22, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division One
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