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Negligent Entrustment and an Owner’s Duty to Inquire Whether Permissive User has a License

Let’s say you lend your car to someone for the day.  Do you have a duty to ask them if they have a valid license? YES!

Vehicle Code § 14604(a) 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.

Failure to ask them this could place your liability above and beyond the usual liability as owner of a vehicle ($15,000 max under Vehicle Code § 17151) as you may be responsible for negligently entrusting the vehicle (which does not have the same $15,000 cap).

This was at the heart of a recent case, (McKenna v. Beesley (Aug. 6, 2021, No. D077189) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2021 Cal. App. LEXIS 647)

In that case, the plaintiff was a pedestrian struck by a car.  After filing suit, the owner of the vehicle (not the driver) moved for summary judgment, stating they were not responsible for the permissive driver of their car on a theory of negligent entrustment.  The trial court granted summary adjudication.  The plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Court made the following holdings:

  1. Summary adjudication against a pedestrian on his negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle claim was improper where the jury could reasonably find that the vehicle owner had constructive knowledge that the driver of its vehicle was incompetent or unfit to drive and that the owner allowed an unlicensed driver to drive its vehicle, as the pedestrian presented evidence the owner did not ask the driver whether he had a valid driver’s license before permitting him to drive its vehicle, and thus breached its Code, § 14604, duty of inquiry;
  2. Summary judgment against the pedestrian on his negligent hiring claim was improper, as the jury could reasonably find that the hirer of the driver had constructive knowledge that the driver was incompetent or unfit to drive and that the hirer allowed an unlicensed driver to drive a vehicle in violation of Veh. Code, § 14606, subd. (a).

This is an important lesson for anyone who wants to lend their car to someone.  Ask them if they have a valid driver’s license; otherwise, you could potentially be responsible for their actions under a theory of negligent entrustment.

Mr. Serrano has been admitted to practice before California State and Federal Courts. He was named to the Super Lawyers’ 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 Southern California Rising Stars List, an honor awarded to no more than 2.5% of attorneys in Southern California each year. View Attorney Jean-Simon Serrano's Attorney Bio Here.

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