It was one of those injuries that was described as a “freak accident” by local news media. But as is often the case in such matters, such a description shouldn’t be construed to mean it wasn’t preventable.
An auto mechanic in California was retained in 2011 by an auto towing company and its owner to ascertain why a vehicle owned by the company wouldn’t start. Unbeknownst to the plaintiff, the towing company had disconnected the transmission shift linkage in order to tow the vehicle to the company’s property. After the vehicle was towed, the driver failed to reconnect the shift linkage. The plaintiff made sure the vehicle was in “park,” and then he went underneath to determine what was wrong with the vehicle. As soon as he started testing the electrical connection to the starter, the vehicle ran him over and dragged him through the parking lot. His spine was crushed.
The plaintiff later reached a settlement with the towing company and its owner for the insurance policy limit of $1 million. That settlement released all former defendants from liability. The settlement also released “affiliates” of the defendant. About three months after that settlement was finalized, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the property owner, from which the towing company had leased land. The property owner operated a used car dealership on the site.
There was an agreement between the towing company and the dealership, under which the dealership left several vehicles on the property on a consignment basis for the towing company to sell. The vehicle that injured the plaintiff was one such vehicle. The dealership was the party that recommended the plaintiff to the towing company to fix the vehicle.
The plaintiff sued the defendant auto dealership for premises liability.
The defendant car dealership filed for summary judgment in the case, arguing it was an “affiliate” of the former defendants, and as a result, the earlier settlement agreement meant it couldn’t be held liable for the crash.
To support his motion, the dealer submitted a declaration by his attorney (who also represented the former defendants), indicating the earlier settlement release was intended to be a general one applicable to all other persons – known and unknown – who were associated in any manner with this accident and the plaintiff’s catastrophic injuries.
The plaintiff opposed the summary judgment motion, contending the release was ambiguous, and there were disputes of genuine issues of material fact regarding the intent of the release. The plaintiff’s counsel stated he was never aware of the defendant’s potential liability or that the defendant was in any way “affiliated” with the towing company because that relationship wasn’t revealed in discovery during his first lawsuit. The towing company and its insurer did not indicate that the same insurer also maintained a $1 million liability policy with the defendant.
The trial court granted the defendant summary judgment, concluding the defendant should be considered an “affiliate” as a matter of law.
However, the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, reversed. The court noted the defendant would be protected against liability only if the plaintiff and the former defendants intended to consider him as one of the parties’ affiliates or as a person with whom any of the assigning parties’ officers or directors were affiliated. The defendant argued he was a legal affiliate by the dictionary definition, which points to one who is a close associate in connection with another. He argued there was undisputed evidence to demonstrate he was affiliated with the towing company because he leased the property to the company and agreed to sell his cars on that leased property.
The appeals court ruled the term “affiliate” was not ambiguous but disagreed with the defendant and the trial court’s interpretation of the word. “Affiliate” means there was more than an arm’s length contractual relationship, usually meaning an agent of, subordinate to, or dependent upon. There was no evidence in this case, the court ruled, that such a relationship existed here. Thus, the plaintiff may proceed with his premises liability lawsuit.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Iqbal v. Ziadeh, March 24, 2017, California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District
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