Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Commercial Trucker Owes Duty of ‘Extreme Caution,’ Not Just Due Care, Under Hazardous Conditions—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A commercial truck driver must take “extreme caution” when driving in hazardous conditions, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday, saying it was prejudicial error for a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to give an instruction inferring that a lesser degree of care was acceptable.
Div. Four granted a new trial to Linda C. Weaver, who suffered an adverse jury verdict in the suit she filed after being severely injured in a 2001 collision on the 210 Freeway.
According to witnesses, Waver was driving east in moderate to heavy traffic, and in the rain, when she passed the Citrus Boulevard on ramp. Another car, according to the testimony, entered the freeway on her right, lost control, and spun into her car, knocking it into the next lane, where it came to rest about 120 feet of an oncoming truck.
The truck driver was unable to stop his vehicle before hitting Weaver’s. Weaver and her husband sued the drivers of the first car and the truck, as well as the trucking company, Villa Park Trucking, Inc.
The truck driver admitted that he was driving too fast to stop on a wet road in time to avoid the collision. Experts disagreed as to what speed he should have maintained under the circumstances.
Weaver’s lawyers argued that the driver’s duty under the circumstances was set forth in a federal regulation enacted under the 1994 Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and asked Judge Michael L. Stern to instruct the jury accordingly.
The regulation reads:
“Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist.”
Stern rejected the proposed instruction, explaining:
“If this were the law in California, there would be a published opinion that I would be mandated to follow. The Legislature has not taken up the issues separately and you may be on the frontiers of the law, but I think that I’m still on the other side of the forest.”
The judge instead instructed the jury that the driver and his employer could be held liable if he violated either Sec. 22350 or Sec. 22406(A)(1) of the Vehicle Code and such violation caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Sec. 22350 is the basic speed law, providing that no driver shall operate a vehicle “at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent” under all of the circumstances, including weather and highway conditions. Sec. 22406(A)(1) provides that a truck may not be driven in excess of 55 miles per hour.
Jurors found in favor of the defendants by a vote of 10 to 2.
Justice J. Gary Hastings, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the judge should have given the instruction requested by the plaintiffs.
The justice cited Borenkraut v. Whitten (1961) 56 Cal.2d 538, which held that an “extreme caution” instruction should have been given to jurors asked to determine whether gas station attendants were negligent in pouring gasoline into a carburetor in an attempt to start a stalled car. The plaintiff was injured in the resulting explosion.
The court said the defendants owed a heightened duty of care because they were engaged in a highly dangerous activity, “handling materials inherently dangerous to human life.”
Similarly, Hastings wrote, a heightened duty applied in Weaver’s case because commercial trucking is subject to federal regulation as a means of ensuring public safety, and operating a commercial truck under hazardous conditions is a dangerous activity.
“The [Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety] Act delegated promulgation of appropriate regulations to the Department of Transportation...which passed Regulation 392.14, prescribing the appropriate standard of care when hazardous conditions exist,” the justice wrote. “It was appellants’ theory of the case that the conditions present at the time of the accident required application of the higher standard, and substantial evidence supports the theory.”
Reviewing the relevant evidence, Hastings concluded that a correctly instructed jury would likely have returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, necessitating reversal.
Attorneys on appeal were Charles T. Mathews and Jeffrey A. Ragar of Mathews & Rager, and Roxanne Huddleston for the plaintiffs and Stephen E. Norris and Kim L. Nguyen of Horvitz & Levy and E. Wallace Dingman of Klute & Pennell for the defendants.
The case is Weaver v. Chavez, B176286.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company