Friday, October 20, 2006
Appeals Court Says Auto Repair Shop Not Liable Where Thief Stole Car, Caused Accident
By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer
A repair shop that left keys in a vehicle overnight was not responsible for injuries caused when the man who stole the vehicle crashed into a police car, even though police had urged the company to secure car keys after two prior thefts, the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The court affirmed a summary judgment in favor of the Maaco Auto Painting & Body Works franchisee in Modesto.
In an opinion by Justice Brad Hill, filed Sept. 27 and certified yesterday for publication, the court held that while the past history might have made the theft and ensuing accident foreseeable, there were no “special circumstances” that would support an exception to the traditional rule that leaving car keys in the ignition does not constitute negligence that would support an action for the intervening conduct of a thief.
Diana May, as guardian ad litem for her severely injured husband and on her own behalf, sued Maaco after Joshua Corralejo ran a red light and collided with Modesto Police Department Sgt. Steve May’s vehicle at a speed of about 60 miles per hour. May and other officers were trying to intercept Corralejo’s truck after he sped away from sheriff’s deputies who had stopped him, the day after he allegedly stole the vehicle from Maaco’s storage lot, smashed it into the front of a cigarette store, stole several cartons of cigarettes, and drove away after attempting to run down a witness.
Also a party to the suit was the CSAC Excess Insurance Authority, a shared-risk pool operator that stepped in to pay workers’ compensation benefits after the city paid $1 million. CSAC intervened to recover those benefits.
Evidence submitted in connection with the summary judgment motion showed that Maaco generally left a number of vehicles in its storage lot overnight. The company had once made it a practice to lock the vehicles and secure the keys in its office, but began leaving them in the cars after a firefighter suggested that “it would be nice to be able to move those cars” in the event of a fire.
The company cited a number of steps it took to secure the storage lot, including a chainlink, reinforced and barbed wire-topped fence, an infrared motion detection system, monitoring by an outside security contractor during nonbusiness hours, video cameras, and alarms. It was unknown how Corralejo got into the lot.
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Hurl W. Johnson granted summary judgment, citing a number of California Supreme Court cases holding that there is no tort duty to prevent third-party criminality by removing keys from the ignition.
Hill, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge, distinguishing cases in which the high court found that specific circumstances created such a high degree of risk or foreseeability as to support an exception.
Those cases, Hill said, “all involved heavy construction vehicles left unattended and available for use by persons unfamiliar with their operation.”
A tort duty cannot be found on the basis of foreseeability alone, Hill went on to say, citing a case in which the court held there is a “socially and judicially acceptable limit on recovery of damages for [an] injury.”
The case is May v. Nine Plus Properties, Inc., F047375.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company