Appeals Court Rules Tow Truck Company Owed Duty of Care in Death Case

In 2005, several people were injured and killed when a documented gang member stole a tow truck from a commercial vehicle repair shop in Los Angeles County, and, while driving it away, lost control and drove up onto a sidewalk. The injured parties brought a lawsuit against the repair shop alleging that it was negligent for leaving the keys in the tow truck ignition, in an area known for high gang and vehicle theft activity. Apparently the thief simply had to start the vehicle and drive out an open gate.

The defendant repair shop brought a motion for summary judgment, to dismiss the case in its entirety, arguing that it owed no duty to the injured people, and that if it did, any negligence committed was not the cause of the injuries: a criminal intervener was. The court agreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Second District noted that absent special circumstances, California courts have consistently have refused to impose a duty on owners or bailees of automobiles or ordinary pickup trucks who leave the key in the ignition of an unattended vehicle to prevent harm to third parties caused by a thief. The court went on to note several cases where “special circumstances” were found, highlighting cases were heavy equipment machinery was stolen and caused injury.

Ultimately, the appellate court reversed the trial court holding that:

[T]he tow truck was accessible to thieves in that it was parked in an area plagued by vehicle thefts, with the key in the ignition, in a position that permitted Bermudez to leave the facility through the unlocked and open gate. The totality of the circumstances “justifies the conclusion that the foreseeable risk of harm imposed is unreasonable, and that the defendant owner or one in charge of [the] vehicle has a duty to third persons in the class of the plaintiffs to refrain from subjecting them to such risk.

Read the entire case here (.pdf)

The injury and accident law firm of Walton Law Firm LLP represents individuals and families throughout San Diego County who have been impacted by negligence related car accidents, defective products, food poisoning, spinal and brain injuries, construction accidents, dog bites, and other personal injury cases.

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