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California Supreme Court Finds Liability for Tractor-Trailer Parked Along Freeway

by Jean-Simon Serrano

On February 28, 2011, the California Supreme Court decided the case of Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (Docket No. S178799). This is another case revolving around a deadly motor vehicle accident in which a tractor-trailer was involved. See my previous article here:

In Cabral, Plaintiff’s husband, the decedent, was driving his pickup truck home from work, when he suddenly veered off the freeway and collided, at high speed, with the rear of a stopped Ralph’s Tractor Trailer. Mr. Cabral was killed instantly. According to investigation, Mr. Cabral was not intoxicated at the time of the accident and experts opined that the accident occurred after he (a) fell asleep at the wheel; or (b) lost control due to an undiagnosed medical condition. Just prior to the accident, the driver of the tractor trailer pulled over to the side of the freeway in order to have a snack.

The jury determined that the decedent was 90% at fault for the accident and apportioned 10% of the fault to the driver of the tractor trailer. The trial court denied Ralphs’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and entered a judgment awarding Mrs. Cabral damages for the wrongful death of her husband.

Ralph’s appealed the Superior Court ruling and the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment on the jury verdict and denial of the employer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Ralph’s successfully argued that it owed no duty to persons such as the decedent as it was not foreseeable that persons such as Mr. Cabral would veer off course and collide with a tractor trailer parked along a freeway. The plaintiff appealed this ruling and thus the matter was put before the California Supreme Court.

The California Supreme Court held that the employer (Ralph’s) owed a legal duty to avoid a collision between the decedent, who was found 90 percent at fault, and the employer’s stopped truck. In so holding, the Supreme Court cited Civil Code, § 1714, subd. (a) which established a general duty of reasonable care for the safety of others. The Court stated that there were no grounds in the current case to find an exception to this general duty of reasonable care. The Court stated:

“That drivers may lose control of their vehicles and leave a freeway for the shoulder area, where they may collide with any obstacle placed there, is not categorically unforeseeable. Nor does public policy clearly demand that truck drivers be universally permitted, without the possibility of civil liability for a collision, to take nonemergency breaks alongside freeways in areas where regulations permit only emergency parking. Were we to recognize the categorical exemption from the duty of ordinary care Ralphs seeks, no liability could be imposed even when a driver unjustifiably stops his or her vehicle alongside the freeway in particularly dangerous circumstances. For example, parking a tractor-trailer for the night immediately next to the freeway traffic lanes on the outside of a poorly lit downhill curve, merely in order to save the cost of a spot in a truck stop, could well be considered negligent. Yet the parking truck driver in that scenario would as a matter of law bear no responsibility for a collision if, as Ralphs contends, no duty exists to exercise reasonable care, in parking alongside a freeway, for the safety of motorists who may unintentionally leave the freeway. We therefore decline to create a categorical rule exempting those parking alongside freeways from the duty of drivers to exercise ordinary care for others in their use of streets and highways.”

The court also held that substantial evidence supported a finding that if the tractor-trailer had not been stopped where it was, the other driver likely would have come to a stop without a fatal collision.

As a result, the court reversed the judgment of the court of appeal.

This is not too dissimilar from the Court of Appeal decision in Lawson v. Safeway Inc., (2010) 191 Cal. App. 4th 400, which essentially held that tractor-trailer drivers had a duty to not only park legally, but also, to park safely.

We, at Heiting & Irwin, specialize in tractor-trailer accidents. If you or anyone you know has been in an accident involving a tractor-trailer, please do not hesitate to contact our office at (951) 682-6400 or visit our website: www.heitingandirwin.com

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