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Who Is Liable in A California Car Accident: Owner or Driver?

What happens if you get injured by a car driver who is not the owner of the car? This happens quite often, but many Californians are still understandably confused as to who is liable to pay for their injuries. Is it the owner who holds the vehicle’s insurance, or the driver who crashed the vehicle? Let’s take a look at what California law says.

Permissive Use In California: Owner’s Limited Liability

The general rule is this: if the at-fault driver was operating the vehicle with permission from the owner, the owner is liable for the accident. This is the “permissive use” principle, stated in California Vehicle Code section 17150.

This principle also makes sense in terms of insurance. Every car owner in the state is required to have auto insurance, and this policy applies to the vehicle, not the person. The person who purchased the insurance may be the policyholder, but he or she is not the only one it may cover.

In fact, auto insurance typically covers all the persons in a household (except for persons who have been specifically excluded). You may remember that when you bought your car insurance, you were required to list the other members of your household. So if, for instance, your spouse was driving the car that you insured and then crashed it, your policy would still cover it. Of course, it’s best to thoroughly read the details of your policy to understand how it works.

California law has additional rules on the principle of permissive use. One is that permission may be given expressly or it may be implied. Express permission is when the owner clearly states that a person may borrow the car. Meanwhile, implied permission is something that isn’t said outright, but is understood between the owner and the borrower. For example, the owner may have handed the keys to the borrower.

Another important rule is that the liability of the car owner is limited. He or she may pay only up to $15,000 if one person was injured or killed in the accident, or $30,000 if more than one person was harmed. In addition, the owner’s property damage liability is only up to $5,000. If your damages exceed these limits, the at-fault driver’s own insurance may have to cover the remaining amount.

When Car Owners Are Fully Liable Even Though They Weren’t Driving

There are some exceptions to the liability limitations stated above. In these circumstances, a car owner may be fully liable for your damages, without the liability cap:

  • A car owner lends the car to an unlicensed driver – This is against the law, and so it is a negligent act in and by itself (separate from the negligent act of crashing the car). In legal terms, we say that the irresponsible car owner has “independent negligence.”
  • A car owner lends the car even though it is unsafe – If the owner knew that the car had a defect or a malfunctioning part, but lent the vehicle anyway, it is also an example of independent negligence.
  • A car owner is the employer of the at-fault driver – If the driver was doing work for the car owner when the collision occurred, the owner or employer is generally held liable for accident damages. This is under the principle of “respondeat superior” or “the superior must answer.”

Car Use Without Permission: Owner Has No Car Accident Liability

If the driver who injured you had no permission to use the car, the vehicle owner is not responsible for paying you. It is the driver who is solely liable.

An obvious example of this is when the driver was operating a stolen car. Another example is when the driver had permission to use the car for a specific purpose, but then he or she used it for something else. Let’s say the vehicle owner loaned the car to his friend to buy something from a store, but then the friend went on to take the car to visit someone on the other side of the city. If this friend or driver causes an accident during his extra travel, they may be solely responsible for it.


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