Thursday, October 29, 2009
S.C. Allows Injured Motorist to Sue Utility Over Placement of Pole
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday left standing a ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which revived a lawsuit against Southern California Edison by a woman who was injured when the car she was a passenger in collided with a light pole.
Div. Two held on July 20 in Laabs v. Southern California Edison Co. (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1260 that the utility company had not shown the absence of a duty of care to Amanda Laabs as a matter of law, based on the circumstances of the October 2004 accident.
The high court denied review, and also denied requests by nonparties Southern California Gas Co., The California League of Cities, and California State Association of Counties to depublish the opinion.
Laabs had been one of three passengers in a 1999 Porsche Carrera being driven by James Dimeo northbound on Ridgecrest Road near Victorville. Dimeo allegedly had taken the car, which belonged to his parents, without their permission in order to show his friends how fast it could go.
At the intersection with Pebble Beach Drive, Dimeo’s vehicle struck another car making a left turn. The Porsche was then propelled across the two southbound lanes of Ridgecrest Road, jumped the curb, slid across the sidewalk and struck a concrete light pole, causing the pole to break at the base.
According to police reports, the car eventually came to rest with its front end “well beyond the paved sidewalk” which measured six feet, two inches wide at the site of the accident. The pole was undisputedly located 18 inches from the curb.
One of Dimeo’s passengers was killed and Laabs lost both of her legs. Dimeo was later cited for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, driving at an unsafe speed, and failing to yield the right of way.
Laabs filed suit against the Southern California Edison Company, which owned and maintained the light pole, and its parent company, Edison International, in San Bernardino Superior Court.
She alleged that the utility companies had been negligent in installing the pole too close to the curb. SCE and Edison both moved for summary judgment on the ground that they owed no duty of care to Laabs. Their motions were granted and judgment was entered in their favor. Laabs did not challenge the judgment in favor of Edison International on appeal.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Jeffrey King explained that public utilities owe a general duty to motorists to use reasonable care when placing light poles adjacent to roadways, but the determination of whether a given case falls within an exception to this general rule or not is a question of law to be determined by courts on a case-by-case basis.
The foreseeability of harm to a plaintiff “though not determinative, has become the chief factor in duty analysis,” he said.
King emphasized that this foreseeability inquiry with respect to duty is a general evaluation of whether the allegedly negligent conduct was likely to result in the kind of harm experienced, and was different from the fact-specific foreseeability questions bearing on breach of duty and proximate causation posed to the jury.
He reasoned that a vehicle leaving a roadway where vehicle speeds commonly exceeded 62 miles per hour and striking a fixed concrete light pole 18 inches away was “easily foreseeable for purposes of analysis of duty,” postulating that such an event could occur “in a number of ways,” such as a driver losing control due to a tire blowout, an evasive maneuver or a collision with another vehicle.
As for SCE’s argument that it could not be liable to Laabs because the location of the street lamp had been chosen by the city of Victorville, King noted that the agreement between SCE and the city did not expressly limit the utility company’s input and control over light placement.
Joined by Justice Douglas P. Miller, King emphasized “we do not hold that SCE owed Laabs a duty of care as a matter of law,” only that the evidence did not establish the absence of a duty.
Justice Thomas E. Hollenhorst dissented. He criticized the majority’s “flawed premise” that SCE had any influence over the placement of the light pole absent any evidence to support such an assumption.
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