California Appeals Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Passenger Defendant Due to Special Knowledge of Road and Encouragement to Speed

In a recent California Court of Appeal case, the court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in a case involving a fatal car accident. The plaintiffs, Miriam Navarette and her three children, sued defendant Hayley Meyer, alleging a violation of Vehicle Code Section 2170 (willfully interfering with the driver of a vehicle, affecting the driver’s control of the vehicle) and civil conspiracy. Allegedly, as a passenger in a vehicle, Meyer told the driver to speed over a road that Meyer knew would cause the car to become airborne, resulting in the death of Navarette’s husband. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Meyer. They found that there was no evidence suggesting Meyer’s act of telling the driver to drive faster affected his control over the vehicle, and no triable issues of material fact existed as to either cause of action.

In this case, Meyer’s friend drove Meyer and another passenger to a nearby drugstore, with Meyer in the front passenger seat. Meyer told the drive to turn onto a shortcut, which happened to be a residential street with a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit. Earlier that day, Meyer had been on this particular street and knew it had dips that would cause the car to become airborne, if the car traveled at a high rate of speed.

While the driver turned onto the road, Meyer told him the dips were fun and he should speed over them. Meyer told him to “go faster,” and the driver accelerated, such that he caught air from the dips and lost control of the car. The car veered sharply to the right, colliding with Navarette’s parked vehicle while her husband was attempting to put a child into a car seat. Navarette’s husband was killed by the impact. Meyer admitted it was her idea to drive fast on this road.

In determining whether to affirm or reverse the trial court’s judgment, the court stated the standard of review for summary judgment, noting that the defendant must show that one or more of the elements of the claim cannot be established. The appeals court made clear they look to the cause of action and determine whether the facts provide a basis for a cause of action.

The question before the appeals court was whether the facts support liability under any pleaded theory or cause of action to defeat Meyer’s summary judgment motion. The court stated that the facts and conduct of the accident are not in dispute. Meyer conceded that she wanted the driver to speed over the dips and that she told him to do so.

Under a joint liability theory, Navarette argued that Meyer abetted, urged, and encouraged the driver to drive in an unlawful manner. The appellate court reviewed the Restatement Second of Torts, and it stated the concert of action theory may impose liability. After reviewing the caselaw, the appeals court held that the evidence shows the driver responded to Meyer’s urging to speed and get air over the speed dips, causing the fatal collision. The court stated that the fact Meyer was a passenger and not driving strengthens the inference she encouraged and incited the driver, and that they jointly engaged in acts leading to the collision. The court also noted that Meyer was familiar with the street, and a reasonable fact finder could infer that Meyer knew cars and people would be present.

The court rejected Meyer’s claim that she cannot be liable for aiding and abetting “unintentional conduct.” For joint liability under a concert of action theory, assisting or encouraging a breach of duty is sufficient.

Regarding the civil conspiracy claim, the court stated that in California, a civil conspiracy requires an agreement to commit a civil wrong or tort. Here, the evidence raises an issue as to the knowledge of the agreement’s unlawful purpose. In this case, driving fast enough to cause the car to catch air is the unlawful purpose. A jury could reasonably conclude that Meyer and the driver tacitly agreed the driver would speed, knowing the unlawful purpose of their agreement. This supports a cause of action for conspiracy.

Next, the court addressed the claim regarding Meyer’s alleged willful interference with the driver so as to affect the control of the vehicle. In determining the scope of the statute, the court turned to the statute and specifically the meaning of the word “interfere.” Direct physical interference is not required. The court took a broad view of actions constituting willful interference.

In this case, Meyer had a special knowledge that a car speeding on the street would be airborne. While she may not have had the specific intent to affect the driver’s control, she took an intentional action that “in some way” affected the driver’s control. The facts here are more than offering directions, as Meyer contends would hypothetically render a passenger liable.

A reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Meyer specifically intended the result of the car speeding and leaving the roadway. The court reversed the judgment, awarding Navarette costs on appeal.

Car accident victims can assert their rights to compensation for their injuries. At the Sharifi Firm, we represent injured individuals throughout California. Contact our office today at 1-866 422-7222 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Rules in Car Accident Award Appeal, Southern California Lawyer Blog, July 9, 2015

California Court of Appeals Upholds Decision to Grant New Trial on Damages in Bus Accident Case, Southern California Lawyer Blog, June 26, 2015

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