Woodland Hills personal injury attorney Barry P. Goldberg has seen hundreds of unusual accident scenarios in 30 years of personal injury practice. However, liability for the actual accident has never been imposed on a passenger. In fact, it is easy to understand why liability should not expand past the negligent driver—no matter what someone says or does, it is the driver that must maintain proper control of his vehicle and ignore advice or urging to the contrary. In a recent case, Navarrette v. Meyer, (June 22, 2015) Cal.App.4th (Div. One), the Court of Appeal held that it is a question of fact whether a passenger can be held responsible for encouraging unsafe driving.
The circumstances in Navarrette are tragic. A passenger encouraged a driver to speed over bumps in the roadway that would make the vehicle airborne. The driver stepped on the gas, the car did jump, and the driver lost control and hit a parked car killing the driver of that car. The family sued both the driver and the passenger alleging, among other things, that it was a civil conspiracy in violation of the Vehicle Code to encourage unsafe speed. The negligent driver moved for summary judgment contending that mere urging of an unsafe speed is not tantamount to a civil conspiracy or an unreasonable interference with the safe operation of a vehicle within the meaning of Vehicle Code section 21701.
The trial court agreed that there could be no cause of action against the passenger in this set of facts and granted the summary judgment. It appeared that the trial court may have been concerned that many common-place circumstances between a driver and passenger could give rise to liability if it were to hold otherwise. For example, can you sue the passenger for giving the driver wrong directions? Asking to change the radio station? Handing the driver a hamburger?
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and determined, under the facts presented, that it is a triable issue for the jury to decide whether the passenger entered into a civil conspiracy and interfered with the safe operation of a vehicle in violation of Vehicle Code section 21701. Vehicle Code section 21701 provides in part:
“No person shall willfully 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.”
As to the civil conspiracy, the Court focused on the particular plan in this case to drive fast and “catch air.” The Court also relied heavily on the drag racing cases that imposed liability for “inciting and encouraging one another to drive at a fast and reckless rate of speed” which furnished the necessary ‘proximate cause’ to support joint and several liability of both racers, including the defendant whose car did not strike the plaintiff.” The Court found the possibility of joint liability for encouraging and “aiding and abetting” an exhibition of speed by the driver.
Further, the Court took the broad view of what actions will constitute willful interference so as to affect a driver’s control of a vehicle for purposes of liability under Vehicle Code section 21701. Because the encouragement to go fast was with the intent for the vehicle to leave the roadway and loose traction, the Court had no problem finding “willful interference.” The Court was further unpersuaded that merely urging someone to go faster would result in lawsuits or that offering directions constituted “willful interference.”
If you are confronted with a serious injury and there is evidence of “interference” with a driver, it is important to consult with an experienced personal injury trial attorney to examine whether the circumstances could be actionable against an interfering passenger.