In spite of documentation of independent contractor relationship, Auto Club may be liable for acts of road service technician based on agency.

Posted in: Summary Judgment, Tort Liability by Steven Vartabedian on

When I read this opinion, my first thought was “Oh, oh, there goes my AAA membership fee.” An increase in my annual fee may not necessarily occur. But the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District (Division Two) opinion in Monarrez v. Automobile Club of Southern California (filed November 20, 2012) 2012 DJDAR 15745, will likely cause some changes in how Auto Club and similar roadside service agencies operate.

Plaintiff, an Auto Club member, suffered catastrophic injuries when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver while receiving roadside assistance for a flat tire. Auto Club had dispatched a road assistance technician employed by one of its contracting companies who agreed to respond to road service calls made to Auto Club from its members. Auto Club vetted these companies before contracting with them, and this particular company had been an Auto Club contractor for more than 20 years; 85 to 90 percent of the company’s business was with the Club. Auto Club provided service guidelines, a training manual and seminars, and monitored performance. The Club visited provider companies two to three times a month. This company’s agreement, like others, promised to act in a “safe” manner in guaranteeing the provision of proficient service.

In particular, technicians are instructed in the training manual to minimize a member’s time standing on the traffic side of the disabled vehicle and, on a tow, to promptly get the member into the tow truck. This technician understood the member’s safety was the top priority, but admitted he failed to explain to plaintiff the danger of standing on the freeway. In this instance, the technician advised plaintiff the technician needed to move the disabled vehicle by towing it to a safer location in order to change the tire. He asked him to get into the tow truck, but proceeded first to load the vehicle onto the tow truck realizing plaintiff had not yet gotten into the truck. When he completed loading the vehicle, he observed plaintiff, who had been out of his view during this process, had been struck be a motorist.

The trial court granted the Auto Club’s motion for summary judgment finding the agreement between Auto Club and the provider company expressly defined the service provider as an independent contractor with Auto Club, which had no control over the manner of performance by the roadside service. On plaintiff’s appeal, the appellate court reversed, determining that the issue of actual or ostensible agency cannot be decided as a matter of law from the submitted evidence. From this evidence, stated the court, it could not conclude that Auto Club had no right of control over the manner and means by which its technicians accomplish their work. In addition to the control the Club exercised in this relationship, there were practical facts that could lead a jury to find ostensible agency, such as the technician’s uniform and vehicle bearing the Auto Club logo. (See Civil Code section 2300.) Because there were triable issues of fact regarding agency, the summary judgment was reversed.

This opinion should cause some concern to parties who might feel they are insulated from potential liability for the acts of a party expressly labeled as an “independent contractor.” They must always be concerned as to whether their conduct infers the relationship is more that of ostensible agency.

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