Court: Auto Club liable for tow-truck drivers
Updated 5:03 p.m., Thursday, November 22, 2012
When you call the Auto Club for help, the tow truck driver who arrives may be wearing an AAA insignia but actually works for a private towing company, a contractual arrangement partly designed as a legal shield for the nation’s largest provider of emergency road services.
But a state appeals court has taken a step toward piercing the shield, ruling that a jury should decide whether the Auto Club has such extensive control of drivers’ conduct, equipment and even physical appearance that it should be responsible if a driver negligently injures someone.
“Auto Club trains the technicians how to do the work, dispatches calls to them, then follows up with inspections and customer surveys,” the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles said Tuesday. “The work performed by the technicians is Auto Club’s regular business.”
The tow truck operators, classified as technicians, are told to identify themselves to motorists as Auto Club representatives and to thank them for choosing the Auto Club, “thereby encouraging members to believe the service was rendered by Auto Club, not an independent contractor,” the court said in a 3-0 ruling.
It was the first ruling in California, and one of only a few in the nation, to allow an Auto Club member to sue the organization over the conduct of one of its contractors, said Holly Boyer, a lawyer for a Los Angeles County man gravely injured in a roadside accident.
“If you’re giving that appearance (that the tow drivers work for the Auto Club), you can’t then shield yourself from liability by saying ‘we had nothing to do with them,’ ” Boyer said.
Lawyers for the Automobile Club of Southern California were unavailable for comment. They have argued that the club is not responsible for the conduct of drivers employed by contracting companies.
The case dates from January 2008, when Ruben Monarrez got a flat tire on the Long Beach freeway late one night and called the Auto Club. The club dispatched Juan Felix, an employee of AM/PM Towing & Auto Repair.
Felix said he checked Monarrez’s Auto Club membership, then told him to get into the tow truck, whose cab extended partly onto the freeway. He said he then lost sight of Monarrez and found him lying on the road after being hit by a passing driver. He suffered orthopedic injuries and brain damage and will require 24-hour care for life, the court said.
The lawsuit alleged that Felix lacked proper safety training and had negligently allowed Monarrez to remain in a dangerous area. A Superior Court judge dismissed the claims against the Auto Club, saying Felix and his employer were contractors and not agents of the club, but the appeals court said a jury should decide that question.
The ruling can be viewed at bit.ly/TQchQF.