California Court Says Passenger May Be Liable to Victims for Her Exhortations to Driver in Fatal Crash

Back seat (or passenger seat) driving usually holds little risk other than potential annoyance to the driver. However, an important new California Court of Appeal case recently concluded that a woman was potentially liable for the instructions and encouragement she gave the driver of her vehicle, which led the driver to speed so fast he lost control of his SUV and crashed into a family and their SUV.

The crash that triggered the lawsuit involved 18-year-old Brandon Coleman, a newly licensed driver who was transporting companions Hayley Meyer and Levi Calhoun to a Riverside County Rite Aid drug store to purchase soft drinks on Thanksgiving night in 2009. On the way, Meyer told Coleman to turn down a 25-mile-per-hour residential street because the street had several dips that could cause a car to become airborne if taken at a high rate of speed.

Meyer encouraged Coleman to drive very fast down the street, and California Highway Patrol investigators estimated that the teen accelerated his mother’s Saturn Vue to speeds as high as 81 miles per hour before he lost control of the SUV. Investigators estimated that the SUV was still going approximately 70 when it slammed into the Ford Explorer of Miriam Navarette and Esteban Soto. The violent impact killed Soto, who was standing outside his vehicle placing one of the couple’s children in a car seat when the Saturn crashed into him.

Navarette sued Meyer for her role in the fatal accident. Navarette claimed that Meyer’s conduct amounted to willfully interfering “with Coleman or the mechanism of the vehicle in such manner as to affect Coleman’s control of the car,” in violation of Section 21701 of the California Vehicle Code. Navarette also accused Meyer and Coleman of conspiring to commit a wrongful act that led to the fatal crash.

Meyer asked for summary judgment on the charges against her, and the trial court agreed that simply telling Coleman to drive faster was not enough to create liability because it did not affect Coleman’s control over the vehicle.

The appeals court, however, reversed the decision and revived Navarette’s case. The law does not require a person to engage in any physical conduct in order to be liable under Section 21701. The case’s undisputed facts stated that Meyer knew from previous experiences that driving very fast down that street could cause a car to leave the surface of the road, and she encouraged Coleman to travel very fast down the street, knowing that this conduct might cause the SUV to leave contact with the roadway. This was enough to amount to interfering with Coleman’s control of the SUV.

The appeals court analogized Meyer’s conduct to that of a participant in a drag race. In previous cases, courts have held both drivers in a drag race, including the driver whose vehicle did not strike the victim, liable for injuries the race caused based upon a legal theory called “concert of action.” Concert of action liability can apply to a person “who did not personally cause the harm … but whose advice or encouragement to act operates as a moral support” to the person who did directly cause the harm. The court decided that Meyer’s telling Coleman to “go faster” was “not materially different” from one driver encouraging another to compete in a drag race.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto accident, there may be a variety of people or entities who were responsible for the injuries and who should be held accountable for those actions. To get reliable advice and skillful representation in your auto accident case, talk to the Oakland car accident attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury lawyers have helped numerous people like you obtain the recovery they deserve. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Rules that Medical Bills, Expert Testimony Enough to Prove Damages in Multi-Million Dollar Auto Accident Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, July 15, 2015

Policy Language Stops California Widow’s Claim Against Insurer in Fatal Drunk Driving Crash, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, March 31, 2015

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