SAN DIEGO — A state court of appeal ruled Wednesday that parents who provide a car to a child with a history of chronic drunk driving can be held financially liable for injuries the child might cause in an accident.
Advocates for victims of drunk drivers said the decision, while not breaking new legal ground, was a significant example of the strides being made by victims to broaden the sources of compensation for their injuries.
The case involved a July, 1982, accident in which a San Diego County woman's car crossed the center divider of a highway and struck head-on the car driven by her mother's hairdresser, who was seriously injured. The parents of the driver, Cherie Straughan of San Marcos, had loaned her the money to buy the car 10 days before the accident.
Straughan was convicted of a criminal charge in the case.
The victim, Pamela Sue McKenna, contended in court that Straughan's parents knew their daughter had a drinking problem and a history of drunk driving. McKenna said she warned Straughan's mother 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 parents, William and Marilyn Straughan, 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 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.
Marcia Dauenhauer, president of the Sacramento County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said the decision was in line with other cases in which California courts have begun to hold that persons who provide a vehicle to a person they know is drunk are liable in accidents caused by the drunk driver.
In another decision Tuesday, the Court of Appeal ruled that a landlord is liable for injuries caused by wild animals kept as pets by his tenants whether or not the landlord knows of the animals' presence.
The case involved a San Diego secretary whose hand was seriously injured when she was attacked in 1979 by a neighbor's wild monkey at her apartment complex in the Pacific Beach area.
Case law in California previously held that landlords--who by statute have only limited access to their tenants' premises--could be held liable for injuries caused by a tenant's pets, wild or domestic, only if they knew the animals were present and did nothing about it.