California Appeals Court Allows Survivors of Pedestrian Victim to Sue Passenger for Encouraging Driver to Speed

The California Court of Appeal reviewed a case involving a pedestrian killed by a motor vehicle, ultimately reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment and allowing the plaintiffs to proceed with their suit. In this case, the relatives of a pedestrian killed in a motor vehicle collision brought an action against the driver for negligence, as well as against the passenger for willfully interfering with the driver of a vehicle. The passenger filed a motion for summary judgment, which the lower court granted.

In the case, the occupants of the vehicle were driving to a drugstore when the front passenger told the driver to take a shortcut through a residential street, which had a posted speed limit of 25 mph. The passenger knew the street had dips that could cause a car traveling at a high rate of speed to become airborne, and she told the driver that he should drive fast over them to “catch air.” The driver sped up to such a degree that he lost control of the car and collided into the victim’s parked car as the victim was attempting to put a child in a car seat. The victim was killed by the impact. Evidence indicated that the defendants’ vehicle was traveling at approximately 70 miles per hour at the time of impact.

The plaintiffs asserted a cause of action against the front passenger for joint liability, alleging that she abetted, urged, and encouraged the driver to engage in the prohibited activity of unlawful exhibition of speed under Vehicle Code § 23109. California law recognizes the concert of action theory of group liability, which may be used to impose liability on a person who did not personally cause harm to the victim, but whose advice or encouragement to act operated as a moral support to a tortfeasor. If the encouragement or assistance is a substantial factor in causing the resulting harm, that person may also be responsible for the consequences of the other’s act. In the case, the court held that whether the passenger’s encouragement of the driver to breach his duty under § 23109 was a substantial factor in causing the death of the victim was an issue of material fact, and summary judgment was not appropriate.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the passenger unreasonably interfered with the safe operation of a vehicle pursuant to Vehicle Code § 21701.  In reversing summary judgment, the court held that when the passenger urged the driver to drive faster, she did so with specific knowledge of the likelihood that his speeding vehicle would leave the roadway. Therefore, a reasonable jury could conclude from the evidence that the passenger specifically intended that result. Under these narrow circumstances, the court held that summary judgment was not warranted on the plaintiffs’ causes of action for violations of Vehicle Code § 21701 and Vehicle Code § 23109, or for civil conspiracy.

At the Law Offices of Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos, our San Mateo attorneys provide skilled legal representation to victims of pedestrian accidents and car accidents, as well as other accidents. If you or a loved one have been hurt by a negligent driver, our personal injury lawyers can advise you of your rights and options under the law. To set up a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys, contact us at 650-345-8484 or online.

More Blog Posts:

California Appeals Court Affirms $15 Million Verdict Against Semi-Truck Operator in Wrongful Death Action, San Mateo Injury Lawyers Blog, Published May 12, 2015

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