State ex rel. CHP v. Superior Court – State Could be Liable for Negligence of Contracted Tow Firm

While government agencies can be and frequently are held accountable for the negligence of their employees, the lines become a bit blurred when it comes to the negligence of independent contractors for government agencies.
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A recent ruling by the California Supreme Court indicates there is at least the possibility the government could be liable for injury cause by an independent contractor, so long as it could be shown the government was a “special employer” of the contractor. The court noted it could find no prior case in the state where the employee of a private contractor qualified as a special public employee for purposes of vicarious liability, but ruled it was not outside the realm of possibility in certain circumstances.

The case is State ex rel. Dep’t of Cal. Highway Patrol v. Superior Court, and it started with a traffic crash on a California highway.

According to court records, the Freeway Service Patrol Act allows drivers to obtain roadside assistance on state highways in California, and the program is administered by, among other agencies, the state highway patrol. Local agencies also contract with private tow services, and those services provide trucks that offer roadside assistance through the Freeway Service Patrol Act.

In this case, a local agency contracted with a private company, which employed defendant tow truck driver. That driver while working reportedly hit a car on the interstate, injuring a woman and her child. The woman suffered catastrophic brain injuries.

Plaintiff sued the state highway patrol, among a number of other defendants. He sought recovery from the agency on the theory the state agency was the tow truck driver’s “special employer.”

Trial court denied the government’s motion for summary judgment. That ruling was reversed by the appeals court, but was again reversed by the state supreme court.

State supreme court noted that if a special employer relationship was established, the state could be held solely liable for the driver’s negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

The question was whether state law – specifically, the Freeway Service Patrol Act – qualified tow truck drivers as public workers.

The court held that while that law does not support the conclusion the tow truck driver was a special employee of the government, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility the highway patrol could in fact be a special employer if it took on responsibilities under agreements with tow service providers that went beyond what was outlined in state law.

With that in mind, the court reversed and remanded the case back to trial court for consideration regarding whether the case would support an argument for special employment liability.

This effectively revives the potential for a claim where a service patrol program is heavily controlled by the state. For example, when it came to the tow truck company work, the state highway patrol oversaw the program, performed background checks, trained drivers, dispatched drivers, inspected vehicles and investigated complaints.

Even if it doesn’t, our car accident lawyers understand victim would have the option of pursuing litigation against the tow truck driver’s direct employer/insurer.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
State ex rel. Dep’t of Cal. Highway Patrol v. Superior Court, Feb. 26, 2015, California Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Combs v. NC Division of Motor Vehicles – DUI License Revocation Upheld, Even as Criminal Case Tossed, Feb. 24, 2015, Winston-Salem Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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