S.C. Revives Lawsuit Against Ralphs by Widow of Negligent Driver
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday revived an action against the Ralphs Grocery Company arising from a fatal 2004 collision involving a pickup truck which veered from traffic lanes and struck its tractor-trailer parked along the shoulder of the highway.
In a unanimous decision, the justices declined to recognize a categorical rule exempting parked motorists from the duty of ordinary care owed to a driver who negligently left the roadway.
On the day of the accident, the Ralphs truck driver said he had parked his vehicle on the dirt shoulder between the eastbound Interstate 10 lanes and a transition road from northbound Interstate 15, about 16 feet from the outermost traffic lane. He testified that he regularly made a brief stop at this location during his delivery route to eat a snack his wife would prepare for him, even though the California Department of Transportation had placed an “Emergency Parking Only” sign in the area.
Witnesses said they saw a pickup truck being driven by Adelelmo Cabral eastbound on Interstate 10 swerve within its lane, then change lanes rapidly and pass other vehicles at a speed of 70 to 80 miles per hour before abruptly leaving the freeway, traveling along the dirt adjacent to traffic lanes and colliding with the parked Ralphs’ truck. Cabral did not appear to have engaged the brakes or attempt to slow his vehicle before the collision, the witnesses said.
A toxicology report on Cabral, who died at the scene, was negative. Expert opinion proffered at trial suggested Cabral either had fallen asleep while driving or was suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition.
Cabral’s widow sued Ralphs for wrongful death, alleging the company’s employee had caused her husband’s death by negligently stopped for nonemergency reasons on the freeway shoulder. Ralphs cross‑complained for damage to its tractor-trailer.
A jury found Cabral 90 percent responsible for the accident, and Ralphs 10 percent. Plaintiff’s total economic damages were fixed by the jury at $480,023, with noneconomic damages of $4.33 million, but after reducing the award for Cabral’s comparative fault and deducting the award of $4,725 on Ralphs’ cross-complaint, plaintiff received $475,298.
Retired Fifth District Court of Appeal Justice Kenneth Andreen, sitting on assignment in the San Bernardino Superior Court, rejected Ralphs’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict but a divided panel of the Fourth District reversed. The Div. Two justices said Ralphs “owed no duty to Decedent.”
The majority rested its holding on its conclusions that the possibility of a driver unintentionally leaving traffic lanes and colliding with a tractor-trailer stopped off the freeway, in an area in which emergency parking was permitted, was too remote to be considered foreseeable.
The court also held that the societal burden of imposing liability on parked motorists or neighboring property owners for failure to provide a “safe landing” for drivers would exceed the public benefit.
But in her opinion for the state’s high court, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar reasoned that the possibility a vehicle parked by the side of a freeway may be struck by another motorist “is clearly foreseeable.” Although drivers “are supposed to control their vehicles and keep them on the traveled roadway,” she posited, “common experience shows they do not always do so.”
She emphasized that “the foreseeability question for duty purposes is not whether [the Ralphs’ driver] could reasonably have foreseen an accident at that exact spot along the highway, but whether it is generally foreseeable that a vehicle stopped alongside a freeway may be hit by one departing, out of control, from the road.”
That emergency parking was permitted in the area where the Ralphs driver stopped “does not imply a collision at that spot was unforeseeable,” the justice added, reasoning that the driver’s conduct “would presumably not have been considered negligent” had he not stopped for “discretionary personal purposes.”
“To the extent [the Ralphs driver] acted negligently in stopping alongside the freeway, as the jury found he did, it is because he unreasonably created a risk of precisely the type of event that occurred.” Werdegar said.
The instant case was not about whether to recognize a new duty, but whether to recognize an exemption to the ordinary duty “to use reasonable care in choosing whether, when and where to stop alongside a freeway,” she explained.
Based on the evidence presented at trial, Werdegar concluded a jury could have found the Ralphs’ driver’s stop “was a substantial factor in causing the collision whether or not it was made for an emergency—though if made for an emergency, the stop would presumably not have been found negligent.”
The case is Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Company, 11 S.O.S. 1157.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company