California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI)

720. Motor Vehicle Owner Liability—Permissive Use of Vehicle


[Name of plaintiff] claims that [he/she] was harmed and that [name of defendant] is responsible for the harm because [name of defendant] gave [name of driver] permission to operate the vehicle. To establish this claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:

1. That [name of driver] was negligent in operating the vehicle;

2. That [name of defendant] was an owner of the vehicle at the time of the injury to [name of plaintiff]; and

3. That [name of defendant], by words or conduct, gave permission to [name of driver] to use the vehicle.

In determining whether permission was given, you may consider the relationship between the owner and the operator. [For example, if the parties are related or the owner and the operator are employer and employee, such a relationship may support a finding that there was implied permission to use the vehicle.]

[If the vehicle owner has given a person permission to use the vehicle, and that person authorizes a third person to operate the vehicle, the third person may be considered to have used the vehicle with the permission of the owner.]


New September 2003

Directions for Use

Separate instructions will be necessary regarding the negligence of the driver and that it caused harm to the plaintiff. Read bracketed language if appropriate to the facts. If ownership of the vehicle is uncontested, element 2 may be deleted.

Sources and Authority

  • Vehicle Code section 17150 provides: “Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of the owner.”
  • Vehicle Code section 17151(a) provides, in part: “The liability of an owner . . . is limited to the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) for the death of or injury to one person . . . and . . . to the amount of thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) for the death of or injury to more than one person . . . and is limited to the amount of five thousand dollars ($5,000) for damage to property.”
  • The statutory limitation under section 17151(a) “does not apply . . . to a vehicle owner’s own common law negligence, as distinguished from the owner’s statutory vicarious liability for the operator’s negligence.” (Fremont Compensation Insurance Co. v. Hartnett (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 669, 675–676 [23 Cal.Rptr.2d 567].)
  • “[U]nless the evidence points to one conclusion only, the question of the existence of the requisite permission under [section 17150] is one to be determined by the trier of fact, ‘upon the facts and circumstances in evidence and the inferences reasonably to be drawn therefrom.’ ” (Peterson v. Grieger, Inc. (1961) 57 Cal.2d 43, 51 [17 Cal.Rptr. 828, 367 P.2d 420], internal citations omitted.)
  • “[P]ermission cannot be left to speculation or conjecture nor be assumed, but must be affirmatively proved, and the fact of permission is just as important to sustain the imposition of liability as is the fact of ownership.” (Scheff v. Roberts (1950) 35 Cal.2d 10, 12 [215 P.2d 925], internal citations omitted.)
  • “Where the issue of implied permissive use is involved, the general relationship existing between the owner and the operator, is of paramount importance. Where, for example, the parties are related by blood, or marriage, or where the relationship between the owner and the operator is that of principal and agent, weaker direct evidence will support a finding of such use than where the parties are only acquaintances or strangers.” (Elkinton v. California State Automobile Assn., Interstate Insurance Bureau (1959) 173 Cal.App.2d 338, 344 [343 P.2d 396], internal citations omitted.)
  • “There is no doubt that the word ‘owner’ as used in [the predecessor to Vehicle Code section 17150] for the purpose of creating a liability thereunder, is not synonymous with that word as used in the ordinary sense of referring to a person or persons whose title is good as against all others. Under the Vehicle Code there may be several such ‘owners’ at any one time. One or more persons may be an ‘owner,’ and thus liable for the injuries of a third party, even though no such ‘owner’ possesses all of the normal incidents of ownership.” (Stoddart v. Peirce (1959) 53 Cal.2d 105, 115 [346 P.2d 774], internal citation omitted.)
  • “The question whether the [defendant] was an owner for purposes of imposition of liability for negligence [under Vehicle Code section 17150] was one of fact.” (Campbell v. Security Pacific Nat. Bank (1976) 62 Cal.App.3d 379, 385 [133 Cal.Rptr. 77].)
  • “Strict compliance with Vehicle Code section 5602 [regarding the sale or transfer of a vehicle] is required to enable a transferring owner to escape the liability imposed by section 17150 on account of an accident occurring before notice of the transfer is received by the Motor Vehicle Department.” (Laureano v. Christensen (1971) 18 Cal.App.3d 515, 520–521 [95 Cal.Rptr. 872].)
  • “[T]he true and actual owner of an automobile [is not] relieved from liability by the expedient of registration in the name of another. . . . It is clear that it was the legislative intent to make the actual owners of automobiles liable for the negligence of those to whom permission is given to drive them. According to the allegations of the complaint defendants . . . were in fact the true owners of the car and had control of it, the registration being in the name of defendant [driver] for the purpose of avoiding liability.” (McCalla v. Grosse (1941) 42 Cal.App.2d 546, 549–550 [109 P.2d 358].)
  • “[I]t is a question of fact in cases of co-ownership, as it is in cases of single ownership, whether the operation of an automobile is with or without the consent, express or implied, of an owner who is not personally participating in such operation. The mere fact of co-ownership does not necessarily or conclusively establish that the common owners have consented to any usage or possession among themselves of a type for which permission is essential.” (Krum v. Malloy (1943) 22 Cal.2d 132, 136 [137 P.2d 18].)
  • “The immunity of the negligent operator under the [Workers’ Compensation] Act does not insulate a vehicle owner who is neither the plaintiff’s employer nor co-employee from liability under section 17150. [¶] Since the owner’s liability does not arise from the status or liability of the operator, the defenses applicable to the operator are not available to the owner.” (Galvis v. Petito (1993) 13 Cal.App.4th 551, 554 [16 Cal.Rptr.2d 560].)
  • “The doctrine of ‘negligent entrustment’ is clearly distinguishable from the theory of ‘vicarious liability.’ Negligent entrustment is a common law liability doctrine. Conversely, the obligation of a lending owner of an automobile is one of statutory liability. An owner of an automobile may be independently negligent in entrusting it to an incompetent driver. California is one of several states which recognizes the liability of an automobile owner who has entrusted a car to an incompetent, reckless, or inexperienced driver, and has supplemented the common law doctrine of negligent entrustment by enactment of a specific consent statute.” (Syah v. Johnson (1966) 247 Cal.App.2d 534, 538 [55 Cal.Rptr. 741], internal citations omitted.)
  • For purposes of liability under the permissive use statute, “[s]ince defendant [car owner] had the opportunity of making such investigation as he deemed necessary to satisfy himself as to the identity of the [renter] to whom he intrusted his automobile, he should not be permitted to escape liability to a third party because of any fraudulent misrepresentation made by the renter of the car to him.” (Tuderios v. Hertz Drivurself Stations, Inc. (1945) 70 Cal.App.2d 192, 198 [160 P.2d 554].)
  • “[T]he provisions of Proposition 51 do not operate to reduce the liability of vehicle owners imposed by Vehicle Code section 17150.” (Rashtian v. BRAC- BH, Inc. (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 1847, 1849 [12 Cal.Rptr.2d 411].)
  • “[I]f the evidence shows that an automobile was being driven by an employee of the owner at the time of an accident, the jury may infer that the employee was operating the automobile with the permission of the owner.” (Hicks v. Reis (1943) 21 Cal.2d 654, 659 [134 P.2d 788], internal quotation marks and citations omitted.)
  • “The mere fact that at the time of an accident one is driving an automobile belonging to another is not, of itself, sufficient to establish that the former was driving the car with the permission of the owner.” (Di Rebaylio v. Herndon (1935) 6 Cal.App.2d 567, 569 [44 P.2d 581].)
  • “[I]mplied permission to use an automobile may be found even where the owner and permittee expressly deny that permission was given.” (Anderson v. Wagnon (1952) 110 Cal.App.2d 362, 366 [242 P.2d 915].)
  • “[I]n determining whether there has been an implied permission, it is not necessary that the owner have prior knowledge that the driver intends to use the car, but it must be ‘under circumstances from which consent to use the car is necessarily implied.’ ” (Mucci v. Winter (1951) 103 Cal.App.2d 627, 631 [230 P.2d 22], internal citation omitted.)
  • For purposes of statutory vicarious liability, “if the owner entrusts his car to another he invests him with the same authority to select an operator which the owner has in the first instance. . . . [¶] . . . The owner is thus liable for negligent acts by a subpermittee even though the subpermittee operated the owner’s vehicle with authorization only from the permittee, since the foundation of the statutory liability is the permission given to another to use an instrumentality which if improperly used is a danger and menace to the public.” (Peterson v. Grieger, Inc. (1961) 57 Cal.2d 43, 54 [17 Cal.Rptr. 828, 367 P.2d 420], internal quotation marks and citations omitted.)

Secondary Sources

6 Witkin, Summary of California Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, §§ 1260–1265, 1271

California Tort Guide (Cont.Ed.Bar 3d ed.) Automobiles, §§ 4.28–4.32, 4.37

2 Levy et al., California Torts, Ch. 20, Motor Vehicles, § 20.20 (Matthew Bender)

8 California Forms of Pleading and Practice, Ch. 82, Automobiles: Causes of Action, §§ 82.11, 82.16 (Matthew Bender)

2 California Civil Practice: Torts (Thomson West) §§ 25:44–25:45