The driver of a motor vehicle has a duty to exercise ordinary care at all times to avoid placing himself, herself or others in danger, to use like care to avoid an accident and to maintain proper control of his or her vehicle. People v. Oyaas (1985) 173 Cal. App. 3d 663. Further, the driver’s general duty of ordinary care includes the duty to keep a proper lookout for persons or vehicles and to keep the vehicle under such control as will enable him or her to avoid a collision.
Downing v. Barrett Mobile Home Transport, Inc. (1974) 38 Cal. App. 3d 519. Failure to keep such a lookout or to see that which may readily be seen if the driver was looking constitutes negligence as a matter of law. Gergman v. Bierman (1956) 138 Cal. App. 3d 692.
If a driver was operating a vehicle without a valid driver’s license, he may be found to have violated California Vehicle Code Section 12500, subd. (b), which provides:
A person may not drive a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle upon a highway, unless the person then holds a valid driver's license or endorsement issued under this code for that class, except those persons who are expressly exempted under this code, or those persons specifically authorized to operate motorized bicycles or motorized scooters with a valid driver's license of any class, as specified in subdivision (h) of Section 12804.9.
Notably, California Evidence Code Section 669, subd. (a) provides that the failure of a person to exercise due care is presumed if:
(1) He violated a statute, ordinance, or regulation of a public entity;
(2) The violation proximately caused death or injury to person or property;
(3) The death or injury resulted from an occurrence of the nature which the statute, ordinance, or regulation was designed to prevent; and
(4) The person suffering the death or the injury to his person or property was one of the class of persons for whose protection the statute, ordinance, or regulation was adopted.
Accordingly, a driver who violates any of the rules of the road may be presumed negligent if the four conditions set forth above are present. Casey v. Russell (1982) 138 Cal. App. 3d. 379. However, the presumption may be rebutted by proof that the person violating the statute did what might reasonably be expected of a person of ordinary prudence, acting under similar circumstances, who desired to comply with the law. California Evidence Code Section 669, subd. (b). Similarly, the presumption is inapplicable “where violation of the provision was required bay a law of the federal government [or] to comply with […] the California Emergency Services Act.”
California Civil Code Section 3333.4 generally prohibits the recovery of non-economic losses (to compensate for pain and suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement and other nonpecuniary damages) where the operator of the vehicle is an uninsured motorist. However, the Supreme Court of California’s recent ruling in Horwich v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal. 4th 272 limits the applicability of California Civil Code Section 3333.4. The Court’s ruling in that case generally stands for the proposition that a wrongful death plaintiff whose decedent was the uninsured owner or operator of a motor vehicle involved in an accident is not precluded under the statute governing recovery in such cases, from recovering damages for loss of care, comfort and society. (The Court’s rationale is that a plaintiff in a wrongful death action is not the uninsured owner or operator of a vehicle involved in the accident. Whereas Section 3333.4 is aimed at people who have failed to take personal responsibility for their actions, including drivers without liability insurance. Applying Section 3333.4 directly to a wrongful death plaintiff would prohibit recovery by the plaintiffs, rather than the decedent.)