Auto Accident Victims Who Don’t Know They Are Uninsured Owners Can Recover Pain And Suffering

A new decision by the California 3rd District Court of Appeal has held that an unknowing owner of an uninsured vehicle may recover non-economic (pain and suffering) damages following an auto accident with a school bus.

Puaolele Ieremia was a passenger in a Dodge Durango which was being driven by her husband when they were hit by a Hilmar Unified School District bus. A jury awarded Mrs. Ieremia $128,145 in economic damages and $1.9 million in non-economic (pain and suffering) damages. The school district appealed, arguing that Proposition 213 and California Civil Code section 3333.4(a)(2) prohibited her from recovering non-economic damages as the Durango was uninsured at the time of the accident.

Section 3333.4(a)(2) states that the owner of an uninsured vehicle which is involved in an accident cannot recovery non-economic (pain and suffering) damages.

After the accident, Mrs. Ieremia learned that her husband had purchased the vehicle from his boss with part of his earnings. Although the boss had signed over the title to Mr. Ieremia, he had not yet registered the vehicle as he did not have insurance, nor had he told his wife he had purchased the Durango. The School District argued that since Mr. Ieremia had purchased the vehicle with community property funds, under California law Mrs. Ieremia was also an owner of the vehicle.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s finding that Mrs. Ieremia was not an owner of the vehicle, relying upon Savnik v. Hall(1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 733. In Savnik the court held that merely being on the title to a vehicle is not enough, finding that an owner “is one who exercises the incidents of ownership–dominion, control, right, interest, and title.” Savnik at 740. The court found that holding a non-knowing owner responsible was inconsistent with the purpose of Prop. 213 which was to limit recovery of non-economic damages for those drivers who knowingly choose to break the law.

The court found that Mrs. Ieremia had no idea her husband had purchased the vehicle and had not exercised any dominion, control, right, interest, or title in the Durange and therefore was not knowingly trying to break the law by operating an uninsured vehicle.

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