A state appeal court in San Diego ruled Wednesday that parents who provide a car to a child--even an adult child--with a history of drunk driving may be held financially liable for injuries the child causes in an accident.
Advocates for victims of drunken drivers said the decision, an extension of well-established negligence law, was a significant example of the strides being made by victims to broaden the sources of compensation for their injuries.
The case involves a July, 1982, accident in which a car driven by the daughter of a San Marcos couple crossed the center divider of a highway and struck head-on a car driven by her mother's hairdresser, who was seriously injured.
William and Marilyn Straughan of San Marcos had loaned their daughter Cherie the money to buy the car 10 days before the accident.
Cherie Straughan was convicted on a criminal charge in the case.
The victim, Pamela Sue McKenna, alleged in court that the elder Straughans knew their daughter had a drinking problem and a history of drunken driving. McKenna said she warned Marilyn Straughan shortly before the accident that buying the girl a car was "like giving a 6-year-old a loaded gun and telling them not to use it."
The elder Straughans denied that they had owned or controlled the car their daughter drove in the accident.
A San Diego County Superior Court judge had dismissed the case on the grounds that a lender--in this case Straughan's parents--could not be held liable for a borrower's actions.
But a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed that decision Wednesday and reinstated the case, saying it could proceed to trial on the broader issue of the parents' responsibility for their child's wrongdoing.
"Imposing potential liability on the Straughans serves the important public policy of protecting the public from intoxicated drivers who cause needless and tragic deaths and injuries on the highways," the court ruled.
The opinion said the Straughans arguably were more culpable in the accident than parents who on a one-time basis simply lent their child the keys to their own car.
"In effect, they gave their daughter a weapon which she was able to use at any and all times, regardless of her condition," the court said.
Kevin Johnson, a San Diego attorney representing the elder Straughans, said the decision was surprising, but he withheld further comment until he had an opportunity to read the ruling.
Others active in the debate over drunk driving said the decision gives new backing to victims' claims for compensation from parties who give drunks the opportunity to drive.
"There's a real swing, what with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and all, toward putting liability where it belongs--not only with the drunk driver but with people who can avoid the injury and death that's occuring to innocent victims," said Louisa Porter, a San Diego lawyer who has represented victims of drunk drivers.
"It's an interesting decision and I think it's one attorneys will take note of," Porter said. "The insurance companies have tried to say that it's only the person who's driving the car who could be liable."
Marcia Dauenhauer, president of the Sacramento County chapter of MADD, said the decision was in line with similar cases around the state. A Sacramento court recently upheld a $250,000 judgment against a woman who gave her car keys to a person whom she knew was drunk and who subsequently was involved in an accident, Dauenhauer said.