Towing company was agent of auto club

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December 27, 2012

Towing company was agent of auto club 

A California appellate court held that a towing company that assisted members of an automobile club was an agent of the club, not an independent contractor. Thus, the club could be liable to a driver who was severely injured while receiving roadside assistance.

Ruben Monarrez, a member of the Automobile Club of California, requested roadside assistance for a flat tire. Juan Felix—a technician for Hirad, Inc., which contracted with the auto club—arrived at the scene and found Monarrez standing on the shoulder of a dangerous area of the highway. Felix asked Monarrez to step inside the cab of his tow truck while he moved the disabled vehicle onto the truck. When Felix completed the loading, he discovered that Monarrez had not stepped inside the truck and was struck by an oncoming motorist. He suffered severe brain and orthopedic injuries.

Monarrez sued the auto club, alleging that it had inadequately trained Felix. The trial court granted the defendant summary judgment on the basis that Felix was an independent contractor.

Reversing, the appellate court noted that courts have disregarded formal documents creating an ostensible independent contractor relationship where the parties’ “acts and declarations” are inconsistent with independent contractor status. The court said that if one party to the contract has the right to control and supervise the actions of another, there is an agency, not an independent contractor, relationship.

Applying these principles here, the court noted that the defendant required Felix to conform to its training manual, which provided tight control over technicians’ appearance and professional behavior, among other things. Additionally, the defendant prohibited Hirad managers from doing business with club competitors without prior consent, oversaw its operations through member surveys, and required Hirad technicians to identify themselves as being from the auto club.

Thus, the court concluded, the defendant retained all necessary control over Hirad’s operation, and a trier of fact could conclude the two parties had an agency relationship. Consequently, summary judgment had been improper.

Citation: Monarrez v. Automobile Club of Am., 2012 WL 5859677 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. Nov. 20, 2012).

Plaintiff counsel: Kevin K. Callahan, AAJ member Stuart B. Esner, and Holly N. Boyer, all of Pasadena, Calif.

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