JULY 1 marked the end of carpoolers' free ride across the Bay Area bridges. The toll for crossing in the carpool lane is now $2.50 (and $3 for the Golden Gate Bridge).
The new toll is changing the bridge scene in multiple ways. The state will collect extra revenue and drivers will no longer cross free by picking up riders.
Less obvious are the potential changes the toll may have on driver liability and insurance coverage for passengers injured while carpooling.
In the pre-toll days, drivers transported fellow bridge goers without seeking compensation because of the free crossing. Now, drivers who pick up riders may ask for bridge toll contributions or accept donations for the new toll. This seemingly innocuous difference, however, presents a legal distinction that may put drivers at greater risk for liability.
The first new issue is the carpool driver's liability for injuries sustained by passengers. Under California law, a driver's liability depends largely upon the status of the rider, namely, whether the rider is considered a "guest" or a paying "non-guest" riding with a "common carrier."
If a driver is transporting guests, he is only liable for injuries arising out of his failure to conform to safety statutes or other blatantly negligent actions; whereas if a driver is transporting non-guest, paying passengers, he may be considered a common carrier, held to a higher standard of care -- and hence be exposed to liability for injuries to passengers resulting from even the slightest negligence.
For example, if a driver is toting guests across the bridge, he is not likely liable for an unknown defective or unsafe condition of his car, whereas a common carrier is strictly bound to provide safe vehicles and will likely be held liable for any resulting injuries.
Carpoolers paying per trip fall somewhere in between guests and paying passengers. Currently, there is no bright-line rule regarding the legal status of passengers in a "share-the-ride" or casual carpool arrangement.
Courts rather analyze the circumstances of each case to determine passenger status, considering factors such as the purpose of the ride arrangement, the type and manner of compensation, and the relationship between the driver and passenger.
A second issue is whether the driver's insurance policy covers injuries sustained by passengers. Auto insurance policies often exclude coverage if the vehicle is "carrying persons for a fee." Check your policy.
Whether a court decides that ridesharing constitutes "carrying persons for a fee" depends on factors such as whether the amount charged was definite, proportionate to the trip, voluntary, or paid as consideration to the driver.
Insurance companies may try to shirk off responsibility to cover accidents involving injuries to passengers while carpooling based on this exclusion.
With the new carpool toll, Bay Area drivers are forced to reconsider their incentives for picking up riders. Since common carrier and guest status is so heavily determined by the type and manner of compensation, it is best for casual carpool drivers to refrain from asking for any set contribution upfront and instead graciously accept voluntary contributions from riders.
In other carpool arrangements, drivers can avoid being labeled common carriers by rotating drivers and implementing a policy of "driver pays the toll."
Following these tips, carpooling with the new bridge tolls should not classify drivers as common carriers with greater liability exposure, nor should it void insurance coverage for related accidents.
Jackie Ravenscroft is a law clerk and Ryan Vlasak is a partner at Bracamontes and Vlasak, P.C. in San Francisco.