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AGO 1950 No. 212 - January 31, 1950
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Smith Troy | 1941-1952 | Attorney General of Washington


1. Officers, agents and servants of municipal corporations are subject to provisions of Financial Responsibility Act as amended by chapter 211, Laws of 1949.

2. Municipal employee operators may be protected by:

            (a)        Special type of insurance covering them when operating vehicle owned by another or;
            (b)        Self-insurance certificates of municipalities protecting them and their drivers acting in proprietary functions;
            (c)        Policy of insurance provided by municipality protecting driver employees in whatever municipal capacity, provided that protection by municipality of vehicle operators therefore is agreed upon in employment contracts.

                                                                   - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                 January 31, 1950

Honorable James Keefe
412 West Glass
Spokane, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 49-51 No. 212

Dear Sir:

            We acknowledge receipt of your letter of January 12, 1950, in which you ask:

            "What are the responsibilities of a driver who is driving a vehicle owned and operated by a municipality in the State of Washington, and if there is a responsibility on the part of a driver, how could he be protected?  Is he protected by the City of  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] Spokane, or does he have to take Personal Responsibility of Motor Vehicle Owners and Operators?"

            It is our conclusion that:

            1. A person driving a vehicle for a municipal corporation of Washington has the same responsibility as others under the 1949 amendment to the motorists financial responsibility act of 1939, section 1, chapter 211, Laws of 1949, amending section 31, chapter 158, Laws of 1939 (6600-131a Rem. Supp. 1949).

            2. Said driver could be protected in several ways, including his taking out an automobile insurance policy which would protect him whether he owned the vehicle he drove or not; or he could be protected by the municipal corporation which employs him, by blanket insurance of its drivers, or by certificate of self-insurance if it owns more than 25 cars which are operated pursuant to its proprietary functions.


            The 1949 amendment merely adds to the 1939 act a provision requiring financial responsibility after an accident rather than after judgment for damages; and adds a provision for certificate of self-insurance by owners of more than 25 vehicles.  No mention is made of municipal corporations, and no exception is made releasing them or their drivers from operation of the act.

            Municipal corporations acting as they do in both governmental and proprietary capacities, are liable for negligent operation of their vehicles depending on the capacity in which they are being used at the time.  A municipal corporation is not liable for such negligent operation of a vehicle operated in connection with its governmental duties in furtherance of the health, safety and security of the public in carrying out the duties of the sovereign.  Hagerman v. City of Seattle, 189 Wash. 694, 66 P. (2d) 1152 and Krings v. City of Bremerton, 22 Wn. (2d) 220, 155 P. (2d) 493.  It is accepted law that a municipal corporation is not liable for claims or judgments arising from negligence of its officers, agents and employees.

            This, however, is not true when one of its vehicles is operated negligently in carrying out a proprietary function; consequently, not only the operator of the vehicle, but its owner, the municipal corporation, is subject to suit for damagesAbrams v. City of Seattle, 173 Wash. 495 23 P. (2d) 869 andSutton v. City of Snohomish, 11 Wash. 24, 39 Pac. 273.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            In any event, the operator must not drive the municipally owned vehicle in a careless or reckless manner, and if he does so, he is liable for the damages inflicted and must provide the security required under the act, and operator's insurance is one form of security, in addition to others, which is approved.

            The problem is not simple when it is realized that policemenClark v. Wilson, 108 Wash. 127, 186 Pac. 103, fireman Hadley v. Arms & Scott, 136 Wash. 632, 241 Pac. 26, state patrolmenCarpenter v. Thomas, 164 Wash. 583, 3 P. (2d) 1001, school bus driversFarmer v. School District, 171 Wash. 278, 17 P. (2d) 899, as well as all persons employed in connection with construction, operation and maintenance of city streets Sutton v. City of Snohomish, 11 Wash. 24, 39 Pac. 273; sewersVitucci Importing Co. v. City of Seattle, 92 Wash. 192, 130 Pac. 109; light and power plants and systems Abrams v. City of Seattle, 60 Wash. 356, 111 Pac. 168; water systemsAronson v. City of Everett, 136 Wash. 312, 239 Pac. 1011; garbage collection and disposal systems Krings v. City of Bremerton, 22 Wn. (2d) 220, 155 P. (2d) 493; parks and public beaches Russell v. City of Tacoma, 8 Wash. 156, 35 Pac. 605; city transit systemsCalvert v. City of Seattle, 23 Wn. (2d) 817, 162 P. (2d) 441; city clean-up force Seibley v. City of Sunnyside, 178 Wash. 632, 35 P. (2d) 56; city irrigation systemsYakima Heating Co. v. North Yakima, 86 Wash. 99, 149 Pac. 341; city port districts Carmin v. Port of Seattle, 10 Wn. (2d) 139, 116 P. (2d) 338; city health departmentsHagerman v. City of Seattle, 189 Wash. 694, 66 P. (2d) 1152, are subject to this act and may be sued for damages as a result of an accident occurring while driving a municipally owned vehicle.

            Not all of the above decisions directly involve drivers, but demonstrate liability of employees or the possibility of their being found contributorially negligent.

            In addition to operator insurance policies available to drivers who operate vehicles owned by another, and who are paid enough to stand the cost of the provision therefor, the municipality may protect its drivers, when its vehicles are operated pursuant to its proprietary functions, by securing a certificate of self-insurance provided it possesses 25 or more licensed vehicles devoted to this function section 31, chapter 158, Laws of 1939, as amended by section 1 (section 31m, 1, 2, 3,) chapter 211, Laws of 1949.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            We have further held in an opinion dated March 26, 1946, addressed to Honorable Cliff Yelle, State Auditor, attention: Division of Municipal Corporations, Chief Examiner, that a city may pay the necessary premiums for insurance to protect both itself and its vehicle operators from liability no matter in what capacity the vehicle was being used, so long as in furtherance of the city's business.  This stand is based upon the employment contract between the employer and its servants.

            We therefore hold that officers, agents and servants of municipal corporations are all subject to the provisions of the motor vehicle financial responsibility act as amended, including the police and fire department members; that said servants, when operating vehicles owned by the municipal corporation, may be protected by self-insurance certificates of the employer when acting in its proprietary capacity; and that municipal corporations may also take out and pay the premiums for insurance to protect the municipalities as well as their employee operators whether to cover accidents occurring in carrying out proprietary or governmental duties if the contract of employment between employer and employee includes such protection.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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