TRUCKEE, Calif. - Many of us have AAA cards. That's who we call when we lock our keys in the car or land in a snow bank or are involved in an accident. Today's case, involving a tragic incident on the Long Beach freeway, offers insight into AAA and the training of AAA drivers.
Automobile Club of Southern California and AAA (AAA) member Ruben Monarrez requested roadside assistance for a flat tire. AAA dispatched a flatbed car carrier driven by Juan Felix who arrived around 11:00 p.m. Monarrez's car was six inches from the "fog line," the white line that separates the freeway lanes from the shoulder.
Felix told Monarrez he was going to load and transport the car to the next exit to change the tire. He instructed Monarrez to get into his tow truck. Monarrez replied, "okay." When Felix was done loading the car, he looked up to see Monarrez next to the tow truck in the slow lane of the freeway, having been struck by a hit-and-run motorist.
Monarrez suffered serious brain injuries and requires 24-hour skilled nursing care for life. He and his family sued Juan Felix, the tow company he worked for, Hirad, Inc., and AAA.
AAA Training Manual
Hirad, who does business as AM/PM Towing, is described as an independent contractor in its AAA Roadside Assistance Contract. AAA may cancel the Contract at any time. 85 to 90 percent of Hirad's business comes from AAA and the tow trucks and uniforms bear the AAA logo.
Hirad must abide by a 150-page AAA Training Manual which requires neat and clean vehicles, neat, clean and uniformed drivers (tattoos, tennis shoes and smoking are unacceptable), and even scripted introductions described as "Things to Say" to members.
The things to say include, "Let's see what can be done!"; "Don't worry, this happens all the time."; "I know what it's like to be in your situation"; "Do you have a ride?" and "Don't forget your personal belongings." Sound familiar? Hirad is compensated by AAA on a per-call basis. Felix the driver is paid by Hirad, not AAA.
The Training Manual instructs drivers to put members in the tow truck with their seatbelt on and to keep members out of the traffic side of vehicles. The Manual has extensive language highlighting the importance of getting members into the cab of the tow truck.
The trial court accepted AAA's argument that it was not liable because Hirad was an independent contractor, not an agent or employee of AAA, just as the AAA Contract recited. The trial court found that AAA had no control of how Hirad performed emergency roadside service, and the Training Manual set out "mere guidelines." The Monarrez family appealed to the Court of Appeal.
A Significant Case
To my surprise, there apparently are no cases in California saying one way or another whether AAA's tow truck operators are independent contractors, such that AAA is not responsible for their actions, or that under the law tow companies are agents of AAA, making AAA responsible for a driver's negligence.
FedEx drivers were held in a similar case to be agents of FedEx given the control FedEx has over its drivers. FedEx drivers' negligence is imputed to FedEx. I assume this AAA case is significant as it will control whether AAA is responsible for its tow operators' negligence.
After reviewing the evidence: almost all of Hirad's business comes from AAA, customers are AAA customers, AAA trains the drivers, drivers are required to "talk the talk" of AAA, driver's trucks have AAA radios and AAA logos, drivers wear AAA uniforms, and on and on - the Court of Appeal determined the tow operators may be actual agents or ostensible agents of AAA. Ostensible agents because they give the appearance the tow truck and driver are AAA.
Ruben Monarrez can take his case to court, which right or wrong if he wins, will give AAA members two companies to sue: the tow truck operator and AAA. I would not be surprised if this case makes it to the California Supreme Court.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm's website www.portersimon.com.