Car Passenger Liability?

by Jeff
(San Ramon, CA, USA)

This is more of a scenario that my son and I have been debating, not an actual situation, but we are trying to obtain guidance...

Let's say my 21 year old nephew was a passenger in a car driven by a 20 year old friend. They were driving rather recklessly at high speeds around curving roads and videotaping their "fun" times. Let's say they hit and killed a bike rider on the road.

Obviously, the driver of the vehicle would be liable for the accident and the wrongful death, manslaughter, etc. Our question is, would there be any liability for the passenger (my nephew)? Could he be sued in a wrongful death case or anything else?

Thanks for your help.

Visitor Question:
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ANSWER for "Car Passenger Liability?":

Jeff (San Ramon, CA, USA):

Your pose some interesting questions. There are really two aspects of this scenario. There is the criminal aspect and the civil aspect.

Let's first take a look at the criminal aspect. Under California Statute 192 (b) (c), reckless driving resulting in the death of an individual can be classified as "Involuntary Manslaughter."

According to Section 192, Involuntary Manslaughter in California occurs when one person kills another unintentionally, either:

1. while committing a crime that is not an inherently dangerous California felony,


2. while committing a lawful act which might produce death, without due caution.

The salient feature of California's involuntary manslaughter is that it does not require intent to kill another person.

In the scenario you describe it's likely the driver would be indicted for involuntary manslaughter. While you say "they" when referring to driving recklessly, there is no evidence the passenger (your nephew) in any way participated in the reckless driving. As a result, your nephew would not be liable for any criminal offense.

The second aspect involves the civil liability of one or both parties. Once again, there is no evidence your nephew participated in the reckless driving. Unless he was holding the steering wheel, or pressing in the gas pedal, he would have no legal liability.

Moral liability is another question, especially if your nephew was prompting the driver to continue to drive recklessly.

The above is general information. Laws change frequently, and across jurisdictions. You should get a personalized case evaluation from an attorney licensed in your state. Find a local attorney to give you a free case review here, or call (888) 647-2490.

Best of luck,

Judge Calisi

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