Permissive Use Liability in California

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Sometimes a friend will ask to borrow your vehicle. If you own a truck, surely one of your friends has asked to borrow it to move their stuff. Most good friends loan their vehicle, no questions asked. This is especially the case when your friend is a good person, driver, and has good car insurance. Unfortunately, all this good can still lead to a bad situation for you if your friend has an accident with your vehicle. There is a whole body of tort law surrounding this situation called permissive use liability.


What is Permissive Use Liability?

CA law says that the owner of a vehicle is liable for any injury or death caused by any person using the vehicle with express or implied permission. [1] It does not matter that you were not in vehicle at the time of the accident. The Courts have stated that protecting innocent third parties “should be paramount to the rights of an owner who has permitted the use of his car by others even though he, personally, was not guilty of negligence.” Burgess v. Cahill (1945) 26 C2d 320, 323.

One exception to this, however, is with regards to car rental companies and car dealerships (in certain situations). Anyone who rents or leases out vehicles is not liable for any injury to persons or property from the person renting or leasing the vehicle from them.

If You Are Injured by a Non-Owner Driver, What Would Your Personal Have to Show?

In order for your personal injury lawyer to win your case they will have to prove three things:

  1. The driver was negligent with the vehicle;
  2. The defendant was an owner of the vehicle at the time of the accident with the plaintiff; and
  3. The defendant gave permission to the driver to use the vehicle, explicitly or implied.

How Much Can You Recover from the Owner?

One thing to keep in mind is that though the owner for the vehicle is liable for the driver, they are not completely liable in that there are limits on damages. California Vehicle Code § 17151 sets these limits at a maximum of $15,000 per injury, $30,000 per accident, and $5,000 for property damage.  Furthermore, any punitive damages won by the victim cannot be directed to the owner.

The limits listed above not apply, however, if there is a reason for placing the liability upon the owner outside of permissive use liability. For instance, if an employee gets into an accident while driving a work vehicle, the owner is liable and the limits are not applicable due to the employer-employee relationship.

But What if the Owner Knew that the Driver was Reckless?

This is where the limits above might be thrown out the window. If the owner of the vehicle knows, or should know, that the driver is incompetent or that the car itself is defective, then they are liable for the full amount under “negligent entrustment.” In this case, the charges will be directed at the owner themselves as opposed to the driver.

This also means that when your attorney is working up your case they will have to decide whether it is more advantageous to use a permissive use theory of recovery or the negligence theory just mentioned. If the driver, despite being a horrible driver, is more financially sound than the owner, it may be in your best interest to use avoid negligence despite the lack of limits.

What if a Thief Stole the Car and Caused the Accident? What if He Left the Keys in the Car?

“Permission” is one of the key components of this topic, so if someone steals the owner’s vehicle, the owner will fall under permissive use liability unless there are special circumstances. Unfortunately, the Courts have decided that leaving one’s keys in an ordinary vehicle, even in the ignition, does not constitute a special circumstance.[2]  However, if it is a “heavy vehicle” such as a bulldozer, tow truck, etc. the special circumstance does apply as it is may be an attractive target for thieves and untrained individuals.

Permissive Use Liability | San Diego Personal Injury LawyerStatutes of Limitations in Permissive Use Liability Cases

Because permissive use liability is a theory of liability and not classified as a type of injury in and of itself, cases where it applies fall under the statute of limitations for the accident involved. In California, this is set at two years by California’s Code of Civil Procedure § 335.1. So, if you believe you have been involved in a car, truck, or other vehicle accident where someone else owned the vehicle, contact a personal injury lawyer about your case.

To learn more about traffic accidents, view the following pages for more information:


[1] Cal. Veh. Code 17150

[2] Richards v. Stanley (1954) 43 C2d 60, 66.


2 thoughts on “Permissive Use Liability in California

  1. John Woodward

    Sounds like a great way to save on car insurance. I have also saved money on car insurance by taking an extra driver education course. I still remember many of the things I learned in that class. It is interesting that you say driving faster will wear your tires out quicker.


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