Factual and procedural background
John Harris was a 32-year-old man who was driving a Toyota Tacoma truck on Nov. 7, 2011. While he was driving, he suffered a grand mal seizure, lost control of the vehicle, and struck a car that was occupied by Mahin Dowlati and Ellie Pirdivari. Dowlati and Pirdivari were killed in the accident, and their family members filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both John Harris for negligence and David Harris, his father, for negligent entrustment.
John Harris had purchased the truck in 2005, and his father had cosigned with him on the loan. His father helped him to make payments and carried the insurance on the vehicle. He also paid for its registration and repairs, and his name continued to appear on the title as a co-owner. John still kept the keys and was the only driver of the truck.
In June 2011, John had a grand mal seizure while he was riding on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train. David was aware of the incident, but he did nothing to remove John’s access to the truck. In July 2011, John suffered a second grand mal seizure on a BART train, which David also knew about. David did not take any steps to persuade John to stop driving the truck. He continued paying the insurance on the vehicle and did not ask John to give him the keys.
David testified that he thought about taking his name off of the title in 2009, but he failed to follow through with that. At trial, John admitted that he was negligent, and the only issue for the jury to determine was the amount of damages that he should pay and the percentage of fault that should be allocated to him. David Harris argued that he did not negligently entrust the truck to John because he couldn’t prevent him from driving it. After the trial, the jury returned with a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and found that John was 90% responsible and David was 10% responsible. The amount of damages that was allocated to David was $388,400. David appealed the verdict, arguing that the court erred in giving a jury instruction that was proposed by the plaintiff about negligent entrustment while refusing to give them two instructions about the meaning of the word “permitted” in the negligent entrustment instruction that the defense had proposed.
Issue: Whether the court erred in giving a jury instruction about negligent entrustment while failing to instruct the meaning of the word permitted?
On appeal, David Harris argued that the court erred in giving California Civil Jury instruction No. 724 without allowing him to submit two instructions to inform the jury about the meaning of the word “permitted” in the jury instruction. The jury instruction gives the elements of the negligent entrustment cause of action and instructs jurors that negligent entrustment occurs in the following type of situation:
- The driver negligently operated the vehicle.
- The defendant was the owner of the vehicle that was operated by the driver and permitted for the driver to operate it.
- The defendant knew or should have known that the defendant was incompetent as a driver.
- The defendant permitted the driver to drive.
- The driver’s incompetence was a substantial factor in the cause of the accident and the victims’ harms.
The defendant proffered two proposed instructions concerning the word permitted. The court denied both instructions, finding that the model jury instruction sufficiently instructed the jury and that the defense instructions were argumentative.
Rule: A party can provide instructions to correct jury instructions that are given based on substantial evidence.
In California, parties are allowed to propose instructions they feel are needed to correct the jury instructions that are given when they are based on substantial evidence. However, the instructions must not be argumentative or overemphasize specific issues of a case. In negligent entrustment of vehicle cases in California, a cause of action for negligent entrustment must be based on the owner’s negligence and not on the negligence of the driver.
Negligent entrustment liability does not arise from the relationship of the defendant and the driver but rather from the entrustment of the vehicle by the owner to the driver. In this case, the father and the son jointly owned the truck, and the father’s name continued to appear on the title. David Harris paid for the insurance, registration, and repairs to the truck even though John was the only driver and possessed the keys to the truck.
The court considered the jury instruction that was given by the court to the jury concerning negligent entrustment and the meaning of the word “permitted” to determine whether the defendant’s additional instructions were necessary for the jury.
Negligent entrustment of a vehicle occurs when a vehicle’s owner permits someone else to drive when the owner knows or has reason to know that the driver is unfit or incompetent to drive. In this case, David Harris knew that John Harris had two grand mal seizures on the BART train just a few months before the accident but did not take action to stop his son from continuing to drive.
David Harris argued that CACI 724 did not provide an adequate definition of “permitted” and proposed several instructions to add to it. One instruction included directions that the jury could not find David to be liable for negligent entrustment of the truck unless it found that David had power over the truck that John was driving and had given his or her express or implied consent. The second proposed defense instruction directed the jury that it could only find David to be liable if David controlled the vehicle by determining whether John was only able to be in possession of the vehicle at the time of the accident with John’s express or implied consent.
The appeals court found that these two instructions were argumentative and presented the defense’s theory of the case. It also found that the instructions were unnecessary since the jury could reasonably infer that the opposite of “permit” was to forbid.
This case illustrates how third parties can be liable based on their own negligence when drivers negligently cause accidents. In another case, Kayleigh McCall v. Coastline Distributing Inc., San Luis Obispo Superior Court Case. No. 14CV0535, a father hired his son to drive a dairy delivery truck for his dairy business. The son had a long history of felony convictions, drug abuse, license suspensions, and incarceration. He rear-ended another vehicle while traveling between 50 and 60 mph, causing serious injuries to the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the father and the father’s company based on a theory of negligent hiring and retention and negligent entrustment. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff of $2,119,875.48.
In that case, the father hired his son despite knowing about his long history of drug abuse and license suspensions to drive the truck and negligently entrusted the truck to him. In this case, the father was the co-owner of the vehicle, failed to remove his name from the title, and failed to take any action to keep his son from continuing to drive after his two seizures such as stopping the insurance on the vehicle.
The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The defendant was ordered to pay the plaintiffs’ costs for the appeal.
Contact Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers APC
If you have been seriously injured in an accident that was caused by someone who was entrusted the vehicle that he or she was driving, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit against the owner for negligent entrustment. Contact Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers APC to schedule a free consultation by calling 310.592.0445.