Thursday, September 23, 2010
C.A. Rejects Suit Against Rental Car Company Over Fatal Collision
No Duty to Conduct Records Check That Would Have Revealed Customer’s DUIs, Justices Say
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A rental car company has no duty to conduct an electronic records check to determine whether a customer has a history of drunk or drugged driving, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Four affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert A. Dukes ruling in favor of Enterprise Rent-a-Car Company and its Los Angeles affiliate. Dukes ruled that the defendants, in renting a car to a licensed and apparently sober driver without an electronic records check, did not breach any duty owed to a man killed in a collision caused by the customer, even if such checks are consistent with current industry practices.
Justice Thomas Willhite, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct. Because there was no breach of duty, he added, it was unnecessary for the court to determine whether the lack of an electronic records check was a legal cause of the collision, which was apparently not drug or alcohol-related.
Jesus and Concepcion Flores alleged in their complaint that the current practice in most of the industry is for rental agencies to conduct an electronic search to determine whether a potential customer has been arrested for DUI in the previous 48 months, and to deny the use of a vehicle if there has been such an arrest.
The claimed that Enterprise decided not to conduct such a search, other than in New York state, for economic reasons. If there had been such a search, they alleged, the company would have discovered that Alexander Dederer was arrested twice for DUI in the 48 months before he rented the car he was driving at the time of his fatal collision with Diego Flores, the plaintiffs’ son.
Dukes granted the companies’ motion for summary judgment based on Osborn v. Hertz Corp. (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d 703, which rejected a claim of negligent entrustment for having rented a car to a customer who caused an accident while driving drunk. The company was unaware that the driver had two prior convictions for drunk driving, and had suffered a six-month license suspension years earlier.
The company, the court said, satisfied its duties to third parties by verifying that the driver was licensed and apparently sober when he rented the vehicle, and was not required to ask him questions about his past record.
The Floreses argued that Osborn, which did not address the issue of records checks, did not control because it did not reflect current industry practice. While they conceded that industry practice could not, in and of itself, create a duty, there was a triable issue as to whether Enterprise’s lack of conformity breached the duty of care.
But Willhite, in his opinion yesterday, said “the duty owed by rental car companies articulated in Osborn remains an accurate statement of the law, regardless of the availability of electronic driver’s license checks.”
If the Legislature wishes to change the law, effectively preventing anyone with a record of drunk driving or license suspensions from renting a car, “thus imposing a severe hardship on responsible citizens who depend on rental cars to do their jobs,” it can do so, Willhite said.
To impose such a rule by judicial decision, the justice added, would be inconsistent with legislation enacted after Osborn was decided.
Code Section Cited
He cited Vehicle Code Sec. 14604, which requires the owner of a vehicle to make “a reasonable effort or inquiry,” prior to entrusting the vehicle, to determine that the potential driver is licensed, but specifies that the owner is not required to check records of the Department of Motor Vehicles as part of the inquiry.
The section also specifies that a rental car company satisfies its duty of inquiry by complying with Secs. 14608 and 14609, which require the company to examine a customer’s license, compare the signature on the license to that on a document signed in the agent’s presence, and record the driver’s name and address and the number, expiration date, and issuing jurisdiction of the driver’s license.
Attorneys on appeal were Steven B. Stevens for the plaintiffs, Risa J. Morris and Wesley D. Hurst of Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Incorporated for Enterprise Rent-A-Car Company, and Paul E. Stephan and Jennifer J. Capabianco of Selman Breitman for Enterprise Rent-A-Car Company of Los Angeles.
The case is Flores v. Enterprise Rent-a-Car Company, 10 S.O.S. 5506.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company