McKenna v. Beesley

Decision Date06 August 2021
Docket NumberD077189
Citation282 Cal.Rptr.3d 431,67 Cal.App.5th 552
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
Parties Blake MCKENNA, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Lance BEESLEY et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Ritter & Associates, Dwight F. Ritter, Karen L. Albence ; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams, San Diego, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Friedenthal, Heffernan & Brown and Jay D. Brown, San Diego, for Defendant and Respondent Lance Beesley.

Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani and Don Willenburg, Oakland, for Defendant and Respondent Smoothreads, Inc.

AARON, J.

I.INTRODUCTION

The California Supreme Court has explained that the tort of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle and the tort of negligent hiring of a person to drive a vehicle are both premised on the "[a]wareness [by the defendant], constructive or actual, that a person is unfit or incompetent to drive." ( Diaz v. Carcamo (2011) 51 Cal.4th 1148, 1157, 126 Cal.Rptr.3d 443, 253 P.3d 535 ( Diaz ).) In this appeal, we consider two issues related to the scope of the constructive knowledge element of these torts.

First, we consider the effect of the Legislature's enactment of Vehicle Code section 14604,1 on the common law tort of negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle. Section 14604 requires an owner of a motor vehicle "to make a reasonable effort or inquiry to determine whether [a] prospective driver possesses a valid driver's license before allowing him or her to operate the owner's vehicle." We conclude that a jury may find that an owner who breaches its section 14604 duty and permits an unlicensed driver to drive the owner's vehicle had constructive knowledge of the driver's incompetence to drive.

We also consider whether a person may be held liable for the common law tort of negligent hiring when the person hires another and allows the hiree to drive a vehicle under the hirer's control without making a reasonable effort or inquiry to determine whether the hiree has an appropriate driver's license, and the hiree in fact lacks such license. (See § 14606, subd. (a) ["A person shall not ... hire ... any person to drive a motor vehicle owned by him or her or under his or her control upon the highways unless that person is licensed for the appropriate class of vehicle to be driven"].) Under these circumstances, we conclude that a jury may find that the hirer had constructive knowledge of the hiree's incompetence to drive.2

II.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. The complaint

In February 2018, Blake McKenna filed a form complaint against Lance Beesley and Smoothreads, Inc. (Smoothreads).3

McKenna checked boxes on the form complaint indicating that he was bringing causes of action for "Motor Vehicle," and "General Negligence." McKenna also checked a box indicating that he was bringing causes of action styled as "Negligence Per Se, [and] Negligent Entrustment."

In an attachment to the complaint, McKenna alleged that on August 4, 2017, he was a pedestrian lawfully crossing the street when he was struck by a vehicle driven by Ann Rogers. McKenna alleged that Rogers's vehicle struck him due to the negligence of "Doe 1," (i.e., Ronald Wells)4 who had "negligently [run] a red light." Specifically, McKenna alleged that Wells negligently drove his vehicle through a red light, striking Rogers's vehicle, and that Rogers's vehicle in turn struck McKenna.5 McKenna alleged that he suffered severe bodily injuries as a result of the accident.

McKenna also alleged that Wells was driving a vehicle owned by Beesley and Smoothreads.6 McKenna further alleged that Beesley and Smoothreads knew or should have known that, due to Wells's past driving experience and/or lack of driving experience, Wells was a negligent driver who created a risk of harm to persons and property and that Beesley and Smoothreads nevertheless knowingly entrusted Wells with the use of the vehicle involved in the accident.7

B. Smoothreads's motion for summary adjudication

Smoothreads filed a motion for summary adjudication in May 2019 in which it sought a determination that McKenna could not prevail on a claim of negligent entrustment against it, among other arguments.8 In a supporting brief, Smoothreads explained that, for purposes of its motion, it assumed that Smoothreads, through Beesley, had granted Wells permission to drive the vehicle that was involved in the accident.9 However, Smoothreads contended that it was entitled to summary adjudication of McKenna's negligent entrustment claim against it because there was no "evidence ... to demonstrate that Smoothreads ... had any actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle operator was an incompetent, reckless or inexperienced driver."

Smoothreads argued in relevant part:

"The sole officer and shareholder of Smoothreads is ... Beesley. [Citation.] Beesley hired Wells to perform some various home construction projects at the Beesley home. [Citation.] Wells represented that he had an active California contractor's license and around 40 years of experience in the industry. [Citation.] In fact, when Wells arrived at the Beesley home, Wells was driving his own vehicle. [Citation.] These undisputed facts demonstrate that Smoothreads, by and through Beesley, had absolutely no reason to suspect any level of driving incompetence or unfitness on the part of Wells. Beesley understood that Wells was an experienced contractor, with an active contractor's license, and Wells arrived driving his own vehicle. Nothing about that situation puts Smoothreads ‘on notice’ of any incompetence or unfitness with respect to Wells['s] driving ability.
"Similarly, [McKenna] cannot show any actual knowledge of unfitness. Wells never informed Beesley of any history with bipolar disorder [citation], never informed him of any history of alcohol problems [citation], never informed him of any history of DUI arrests [citation], never informed him of any arrests in his driving history [citation], and never informed him that he did not have a driver's license.10 [Citation.] Simply stated, Smoothreads, by and through Beesley, lacked the required actual knowledge in order for [McKenna] to prevail on a negligent entrustment theory. Given this lack of knowledge, either actual or constructive, about any level of unfitness or incompetence with respect to Wells, Smoothreads, by and through Beesley, had absolutely no ‘duty to inquire’ any further. Instead, Smoothreads was ‘entitled to rely on [Wells] to discharge [his] responsibilities with reasonable care.’ "11
C. Beesley's motion for summary judgment

Beesley filed a motion for summary judgment in May 2019, presenting an argument similar to Smoothreads's argument in its motion for summary adjudication. In a supporting brief, Beesley stated that he is the chief executive officer of Smoothreads and acknowledged that Smoothreads was the owner of a vehicle involved in the accident. However, Beesley stated that Wells was "never employed by [Smoothreads] and never performed work of any kind for [Smoothreads]." Beesley did acknowledge that Beesley had "used Mr. Wells for various ... handyman jobs at his residence."

Beesley maintained that he could not be liable for negligent entrustment because, even assuming that Wells was the operator of the Smoothreads vehicle involved in the accident and that Beesley gave Wells permission to drive the vehicle, "Beesley had no knowledge that Mr. Wells was incompetent [to] drive the subject vehicle." Specifically, Beesley argued, "At no time was [Beesley] aware that ... Wells did not have a valid driver's license, or that he had a history of alcohol-related driving incidents." Beesley also stated, "Wells never told Mr. Beesley [t]hat he was in any way incompetent to operate a vehicle."

D. McKenna's oppositions

In his oppositions to Beesley's and Smoothreads's motions, McKenna argued that "Beesley, president [and chief executive officer] of Smoothreads, negligently hired, supervised, or retained ... Wells, and knew or should have known that ... Wells was incompetent or unfit to drive [Smoothreads's vehicle]."12 (Boldface & underscore omitted.) McKenna argued in part:

"Beesley negligently hired, negligently supervised, and negligently retained ... Wells. [Citation.] ... Wells did not have a valid driver's license, nor auto insurance coverage. [Citation.] Also, Wells['s] driving history included [three] suspensions for [three] separate [driving under the influence] criminal convictions.... Beesley, [president], and [chief executive officer] of Smoothreads, did not ask Wells, his employee, whether he had a valid driver's license. [Citation.] Beesley did not ask Wells, his employee, before Wells drove, or after, whether he had auto insurance coverage. [Citation.]
"Beesley did not ask Wells before he drove, or after, about Wells['s] driving history or verify Wells['s] driving history in the State of California which contained multiple suspensions, including [three driving under the influence] criminal convictions. [Citation.] Wells worked at Beesley's home throughout the months of June, July and August of 2017. [Citation.] Beesley had multiple opportunities while working to ask Wells if he had a valid driver's license and, if not, any driving restrictions or suspensions. [Citation.] As a matter of fact, the State of California would not license Wells as a competent driver and suspended him from driving on [three] occasions. The State of California knew and treated Wells as an incompetent driver. Beesley knew or should have known that Wells was being negligently supervised, negligently retained, and incompetent to drive [Smoothreads's vehicle]. [Citation.]"13
E. The trial court's order granting Smoothreads's motion for summary adjudication and granting Beesley's motion for summary judgment

After Smoothreads and Beesley filed replies to McKenna's oppositions, the trial court held a hearing on the motions. The court subsequently entered an order on September 6, 2019 granting both Smoothreads's motion for summary adjudication and...

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