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A recent ruling out of the 4th District Court of Appeals here in California held that vehicle owners are required to inquire about the license status of someone before letting them operate their vehicle.  In the case, identified as McKenna v. Beesley, Plaintiff McKenna was injured when driver Ronald Wells ran a red light.  McKenna sued the owner of the vehicle that Wells was driving for negligently entrusting Wells to drive the vehicle, since Wells did not have a valid driver’s license and had a history of alcohol-related driving incidents.  The vehicle owner, Beesley, and a co-defendant successfully convinced the trial court to dismiss the case at summary judgment, arguing that neither defendant had any actual or constructive knowledge of Wells’ unfitness as a driver.

The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, relying upon Vehicle Code, Section 14604.  That section states:

“No owner of a motor vehicle may knowingly allow another person to drive the vehicle upon a highway unless the owner determines that the person possesses a valid driver’s license that authorizes the person to operate the vehicle. For the purposes of this section, an owner is required only to make a reasonable effort or inquiry to determine whether the prospective driver possesses a valid driver’s license before allowing him or her to operate the owner’s vehicle. An owner is not required to inquire of the department whether the prospective driver possesses a valid driver’s license.”

Vehicle Code, Section 14604(a).

The Court found that Code section requires “a motor vehicle owner to make a reasonable effort or inquiry to determine whether prospective drivers possess a valid driver’s license before allowing them to operate the owner’s vehicle”, in furtherance of a legislative purpose of increasing public safety by reducing unlicensed drivers.  In ordering the matter reversed, the Court found there was evidence that could permit a jury to find that Beesley and the other co-defendant breached their duty under Section 14604 and thus allowed the unlicensed Wells to drive their vehicle.

This ruling is an important victory for the public.  Unlicensed drivers, and those with a history of unsafely operating motor vehicles, present a huge danger to members of the public that are out and about the roadway, including not just other motorists but also bicyclists and pedestrians.  Since many unlicensed or dangerous drivers have no insurance to take care of those they harm when they are behind the wheel of another’s vehicle, rulings such as this one serve to provide more protection to the general public, and an experienced attorney can assist an injured party in holding careless owners accountable.

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