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October 8, 2013 > LEGAL EYES Column: The brakes failed. I hit somebody.

LEGAL EYES Column: The brakes failed. I hit somebody.

By Stephen F. Von Till

Q: My mechanic botched my brake job. The brakes failed. I hit somebody. Am I liable for injuries?

A: Yes.

The law does not like the excuse: ÒMy brakes failed.Ó The injured party doesnÕt want to hear excuses about your brakes. Your brakes are your responsibility.

Vehicle Code 26453 provides: ÒAll brakes . . . shall be maintained in good condition and in good working order.Ó

Section 24002 states: ÒIt is unlawful to operate any vehicle . . . which is in an unsafe condition.Ó

Violate these codes and the law PRESUMES your negligence. You are liable for the injuries.

You cannot push the problem to your mechanic and say ÒitÕs not my fault; itÕs my mechanicÕs fault.Ó

You are responsible for your mechanicÕs work. In law, we call this a Ònon-delegable dutyÓ Ð you have a Ònon-delegable dutyÓ to have safe brakes.

The public policy behind this Ònon-delegableÓ duty was stated in Maloney v. Rath:

ÒImproperly maintained motor vehicles threaten a grave risk of serious bodily harm or death.Ó

ÒThe responsibility for minimizing that risk . . . properly rests with the person who owns or operates the vehicle. He is the party primarily . . . benefitted by its use; he selects the [repair shop] . . . The duty to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of his vehicle is of the utmost importance to the public.Ó

Avoiding this presumption of negligence is possible, but difficult.

To avoid the presumption, you must show in trial (1) the cause of the brake failure, (2) that you regularly maintained your vehicle, (3) that your mechanic performed all required work, and (4) that your mechanic was not negligent in his repair and maintenance work.

In other words, to avoid the presumption of negligence, you must prove that your brake failure was an unexpected, freak event - - that despite all reasonable maintenance and repair, the brake failure was inevitable.

If you can prove all that, youÕre off the hook. That would be the very rare case indeed.

The injured party may sue both you and the repair shop. But she is not required to do so. She can leave that problem to you.

You can then add the repair shop to the lawsuit or you can sue the repair shop later for reimbursement.

THE LESSON: Have your vehicle regularly maintained and repaired by a reputable repair shop Ð one that does good work, is licensed, and insured. If the repair shop is out of business when a claim is made, you may be left Òholding the bag.Ó


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