Follow the Leader? Lead Caravan Driver Can Be Liable for Other Drivers’ Negligence

Yong Tao v. Heng Bin Li (Div. 3, Sept. 18, 2007)

The court of appeals held last week that one driver can be held liable for another driver’s negligence.

The plaintiff was a member of a dance group that made a performance tour of the Northwest in 2001. The group’s director organized the schedule and arranged for the lodging and transportation. For one leg of the tour, the director rented three vans for travel from Spokane to Portland. He drove the lead van and instructed two other drivers to follow in caravan 200 meters apart.

The driver of the second van could not read English, had no map, and had never driven to Portland. He followed the lead driver as instructed. The caravan sped through a severe winter storm on an icy highway, possibly at speeds up to 75 miles per hour. The plaintiff was ejected from the second van when it skidded and flipped over. He sued the drivers of the lead and second van. The trial court granted summary judgment to the lead driver, and the plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals held that the lead driver owed a duty to the plaintiff and that a jury could find that the second driver was the lead driver’s agent, resulting in vicarious liability, or that the two acted in concert, resulting in joint liability. The case was remanded for trial.

This decision will be cited in future cases involving drivers who caravan or who act illegally together. For example, the court likened the situation to drag racing, which can result in joint liability of the drivers.