Tuesday, February 19, 2013
C.A. Rejects Suit Against CHP for Delay in Aiding Crash Victims
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Highway Patrol cannot be held liable for a communications delay that allegedly contributed to the deaths of six people who were killed when a Greyhound bus smashed into a disabled SUV in July 2010, the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The court Friday certified for publication its Jan. 23 opinion in the case. The panel affirmed Fresno Superior Court Judge Donald Black’s dismissal of a cross-complaint by Greyhound Lines, Inc., which was sued for negligence in the aftermath of the collision on Highway 99 in Fresno.
The SUV, crashed and had come to rest on its side blocking at least one lane. The bus hit the SUV about three minutes later, killing all three of its occupants, as well as three people on the bus, including the driver.
The Fresno Bee, citing a coroner’s report, said the 18-year-old driver of the SUV had a blood alcohol level of .11.
Greyhound cross-complained against the CHP and others. Against the Highway Patrol, it alleged that before the bus hit the disabled SUV, passing drivers reported the initial SUV crash to 911, but the CHP 911 operator entered an incorrect code in a computer, causing an unnecessary delay in responding.
Caltrans, Greyhound alleged, was liable for a dangerous condition of the highway.
Black sustained the CHP’s demurrer, on grounds that there was no mandatory duty to respond, that there was no allegation of a special relationship, and that police-protection immunity under Government Code Sec. 845 and the qualified immunity of 911 operators under Health and Safety Code Sec. 1799.107 barred the claim.
The CHP, in addition to arguing that Black was correct on the merits, argued that the Court of Appeal lacked jurisdiction because another state agency, Caltrans, was still a party to the underlying action.
Justice Herbert Levy, writing for the Court of Appeal, rejected the jurisdictional argument, noting that Caltrans and the CHP are “distinct and separate entities,” each of which has its own chief executive, is organized for a different purpose, and was alleged to be liable under a different theory.
“When a judgment determines the rights of the party in one capacity but not another, that judgment may be final even though the action is still pending with respect to the rights of the party in a different capacity,” Levy said, further noting that the two agencies were represented by separate counsel and had filed separate pleadings.
The jurist went on, however, to conclude that the trial judge was correct in ruling that the CHP is not liable as a matter of law.
Levy explained that no person or entity, including a government agency, has a duty under tort law to come to the aid of another unless that person or entity created the peril or has a “special relationship” with the imperiled party. In the case of a law enforcement agency, including the CHP, he added, there is no such relationship unless the agency has made an express or implied promise to assist, and only in “unusual cases” has a court held that such a promise was made or could be implied.
A finding of liability under the narrow rule, the justice elaborated, requires that the defendant have increased the risk to the plaintiff or caused the plaintiff to detrimentally rely on the alleged promise.
‘Speculation and Conjecture’
In this case, he said, Greyhound was relying on “speculation and conjecture” in alleging that the 911 callers would have stopped and assisted the passengers themselves had they not been told that the CHP was on its way. The 911 passengers, he added, didn’t have a duty to render aid and it would be speculative to have expected them to do so, especially since the bus hit the SUV only three minutes after the initial collision.
“If we were to accept Greyhound’s argument and find a special relationship under these circumstances, it would serve to make CHP virtually an insurer of safety on the highway instead of an enforcer of the Vehicle Code,” the justice wrote.
The lack of a special relationship, he added, made it unnecessary to determine whether a statutory immunity applied.
The case is Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Department of California Highway Patrol, 13 S.O.S. 884.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company