Whose Insurance Covers Car Accident Injuries – Owners or Drivers?

Car accidents can be traumatic experiences, and determining liability for injuries is a crucial aspect of the aftermath. The problem is that legal liability isn’t always as clear-cut as expected. For example, suppose you’re hit by someone driving a car that another person owns. In that case, who’s liable? The driver or the car owner?

The answer can make a big difference in the coverage available to you. In California, liability in these situations is largely dictated by the “permissive use” law. Below, we’ll shed light on how permissive use works in California, when owners or drivers may be held liable for car accidents, and what you can do if you’ve been hurt. 

Car Insurance and Liability and Accident Liability

Before we get into the specifics of driver responsibility, it’s important to understand how liability is usually handled in personal injury cases. These types of claims are handled through the civil court system. Under civil law, you can sue someone for damages if they have harmed you by violating your rights, acting recklessly, or being negligent. Normally, the person who causes you harm is considered directly liable for their actions and the resulting damages. 

However, insurance changes this. When someone purchases a car insurance policy, the insurer promises to “indemnify” them or take on liability for specific types of accidents on their behalf. In California, everyone who owns a car must have insurance coverage, so every registered vehicle is connected to a policy. But what happens when the insured party isn’t the one driving when there’s an accident?

“Permissive Use” in California Car Insurance Policies

California operates under the permissive use law. California Vehicle Code section 17150 states, “Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of the owner.”

In other words, if the owner isn’t the one driving the vehicle when it’s involved in an accident, they are still potentially liable under state law. While this doesn’t explicitly mean that the owner’s insurance will cover other drivers’ accidents, most policies include “permissive use” or “omnibus” clauses that extend coverage to drivers other than those named on the policy.

This law protects accident victims, ensuring that insurance coverage extends beyond just the vehicle owner. However, the extent of this coverage is not unlimited.

Limits on Permissive Use Coverage

While permissive use offers a layer of protection, there are limitations to the coverage provided. Every insurer sets its own terms for what coverage it offers to drivers who aren’t explicitly named on the policy. Some common limits placed on this coverage include:

  • Double deductibles: The deductibles on the policy are doubled if someone not on the policy is driving when there’s an accident. 
  • Drop-down coverage: All coverage types drop to the state minimum instead of the amount provided to insured parties.
  • Removal of physical damage coverage: The policy does not provide coverage for physical damage to the car if it’s damaged in a crash when an unnamed party is driving. 

Furthermore, this policy only applies if the person driving has the owner’s explicit or implicit permission to use the car. If they were using it without permission, there may be no insurance protection. 

When Are Owners Fully Liable for Car Accidents?

Even the limits on permissive use have exceptions, though. Determining when an owner is fully liable involves assessing the specifics of the accident and the driver’s actions. The owner may be liable for the driver’s accident in full in situations such as:

  • The owner employs the driver: In general, employers are considered liable for their employees’ actions while performing their duties. This includes any accidents caused by a driver who’s using a company vehicle. 
  • The owner knowingly lends the vehicle to an unlicensed driver: This is considered a form of negligence, and the negligent party may be fully liable. 
  • The owner lends the car despite knowing it is unsafe: Similarly, knowingly lending an unsafe vehicle is considered negligent, so the lender may be liable for the damages they cause. 

In these cases, the owner is directly liable for the harm caused. If insurance does not cover the damages, the owner must pay them instead.

When Do Drivers Share Liability for Car Accidents?

Conversely, drivers can be held liable for car accidents, particularly if they were operating the vehicle without the owner’s consent or engaging in reckless behavior. The permissive use law may not shield the driver from personal responsibility in such cases. Instead, California’s comparative negligence laws may come into effect. 

Under comparative negligence, multiple parties may share liability for the same accident. For instance, if an owner lends their car to someone and the driver behaves recklessly, the owner and driver may be found equally liable for the ensuing crash. In that case, both parties would be responsible for 50% of the resulting damages. While the exact percentages may vary based on the circumstances, joint liability can expand the potential coverage available to you after you’re hurt in an accident.

Speak to Skilled Personal Injury Lawyers About Your Case

Navigating the landscape of car accident liability in California requires a nuanced understanding of the permissive use law. While this law extends coverage to drivers with the owner’s consent, there are limits to this coverage. If you’ve been in a car accident, the key to navigating this complex landscape lies in grasping the intricacies of insurance law and seeking guidance from a seasoned car accident lawyer. Remember, when it comes to car accidents, knowledge is power. The right legal guidance can make all the difference in securing the compensation you deserve. At Fiore Achermann, our experienced car accident attorneys can help you determine who’s liable for your accident. Schedule your consultation today to discover how we can help you pursue justice for the harm you’ve suffered.