Limousine industry just loosely regulated 

Our question this week comes from Jeanne L. from Daly City:

Q: “I read about the horrible limousine disaster that happened to the bride and her wedding party. What laws apply to limousine companies? Who is responsible in a situation like this?”

A: The tragedy that struck earlier this month on the San Mateo Bridge is unimaginable. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the five women who lost their lives in the horrible fire.

Surprising to most people, the limited regulations that govern limousines and limousine operators are counterintuitive and ineffective in preventing fatalities and life-altering injuries.

Limousines that carry eight or fewer people, including the driver, are only subject to minimal governmental regulations.

Drivers of these lower-capacity limousines are not even required to have a commercial driver’s license. If someone wants to start a limousine company in California, all he or she needs to do is buy a limousine, have a regular Class C driver’s license and register with the California Public Utilities Commission. The law does not require that the operator or driver have any training or experience driving limousines.

Registration with the CPUC and obtaining the operator’s number, which we see printed on limousine bumpers, is a simple administrative function. The CPUC basically just confirms that the limousine has at least the minimum amount of liability insurance coverage ($750,000 for most seven-passenger stretch limos) and that the business has workers’ compensation insurance to cover its employees. There are no particular safety regulations that apply to these limousine operators, even though tragedies involving limousines can harm a number of people.

The way the limousines are created is also not subject to much, if any, real regulation. They bear the logos and names of name-brand car manufacturers, so most people are unaware that limousines are not actually created by the big-name car companies. Standard passenger cars are modified to be used as limousines. Lincoln Town Cars, Humvees and Cadillacs are literally cut in half by small companies that place extensions in the middle to create the stretch limousines we see around town.

After the consumer cars leave the factory, their structural integrity is compromised and they are stretched using lightweight materials, including fiberglass.

The body strength of that large, safe-appearing limousine can actually have been very significantly diminished. Parts — such as fuel lines, transmissions and electrical wiring — have also been modified and can be dangerous. Because limousines are customized, safety organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety do not crash-test them.

The brand-name car manufacturers often avoid any product-liability claims based on the vehicle modifications. If there is a defect in the modification, then it is the fabrication company that will bear responsibility for the negligent assembly.

Private legal actions brought by individuals in civil courts are the only way for victims of dangerous limousines and negligent limousine companies to receive compensation for the significant losses they have suffered. Product liability suits can be filed against car companies and the companies that stretch the limousines.

Negligence suits can be brought against careless limousine drivers and operators. In California, limousine companies are classified as common carriers — commercial enterprises transporting people for money.

The civil law that applies to injury cases involving limousines requires limousine operators to have done all that human care, vigilance and foresight reasonably could have done under the circumstances to have avoided harm to the passengers. They are receiving money to transport people, so the law expects limousine companies to purchase well-built vehicles and to provide well-trained personnel. Extra care is further required because limousine passengers are not required to wear seat belts and because riders have often been celebrating to the point of being intoxicated.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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