Appeals court backs DMV immunity claim in lawsuit filed by motorcyclist severely injured in car accident

By Trisha Marczak-Taurinskas | Jul 16, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO – California’s 1st District Court of Appeal recently upheld a Sonoma County Superior Court judgment favoring the state's Department of Motor Vehicles in a lawsuit alleging the department was responsible for the severe injuries of a man injured in a car accident due to its failure to revoke the license of the driver who caused the accident.

SAN FRANCISCO – California’s 1st District Court of Appeal recently upheld a Sonoma County Superior Court judgment favoring the state's Department of Motor Vehicles in a lawsuit alleging the department was responsible for the severe injuries of a man injured in a car accident due to its failure to revoke the license of the driver who caused the accident. 

Alan Richardson sued the DMV on Aug. 7, 2014, following a July 3, 2012, accident caused by Esie Dembowsky, 93, that resulted in his paralyzation from the waist down. According to court documents, Dembowsky unlawfully turned left into oncoming traffic and hit Richardson, who was riding a motorcycle at the time of the incident. Richardson claimed  the DMV was responsible for the accident due its to failure to revoke Dembowsky’s driver’s license. 

Dembowsky’s driver’s license was originally called into question following an accident in March 2011, which led to a notice of re-examination. While Dembowsky did appear for her hearing, completed the written driving test and passed medical and vision evaluations, she failed to appear for her driving test on May 17, 2011. Dembowsky’s license was then suspended on May 18, 2011. 

On Feb. 1, 2012, Dembowsky was in an accident following an unsafe left turn, resulting in damage to both vehicles involved, according to court documents. In addition, Dembowsky suffered injuries to her right ankle. Following the accident, Dembowsky was informed that her license had been suspended – she later testified that she was unaware of the suspension at the time of the incident. 

The DMV scheduled a telephone interview with Dembowsky on Feb. 13, 2012, over her failure to complete the reexamination process. She failed to appear, prompting the DMV to issue an interview appointment for Feb. 24, 2012. With Dembowsky present at the interview, the DMV noted she was unable to take the driving test due to ankle injuries, prompting the department to recommend her license remain suspended. She was also informed that, in order for the license to be reinstated, new vision and medical evaluations would need to be completed. 

Dembowsky successfully completed vision and medical evaluations in May 2012. In June 2012, she appeared for her hearing —  she was issued a permit allowing her to drive during the daylight with a driving instructor. After failing the subsequent driving test on July 5, 2012, the examiner recommended she take another driving test. In the meantime, the DMV suspended her license. 

Dembowsky enrolled in private driving school classes and retook her driving test with the DMV on Sept. 13, 2012. She passed, resulting in the DMV’s reinstatement of her license. Dembowsky’s driving license remained clean until the July 3, 2012, accident involving Richardson. 

Richardson initially sued Dembowsky, who was later removed, the state of California and the DMV. On June 1, 2016, the Sonoma County Superior Court found in favor of the DMV, claiming “no material disputed fact regarding whether the DMV’s decision to lift Dembowsky’s license suspension was a discretionary act (it was) and, second, that the DMV was therefore entitled to immunity pursuant to section 818.4,” according to court documents.

The appeals court, in its June 22 decision released for publication July 11, affirmed the ruling of the Sonoma County Superior Court.  

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