Thursday, May 16, 2013
C.A. Throws Out Multimillion Dollar Verdict in Traffic Fatality
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday tossed out a multimillion dollar judgment in favor of a California Highway Patrol officer injured when a vehicle driven by a drug user struck a stopped car on the shoulder of a freeway, causing an explosion that killed the driver of the struck vehicle and left the officer partially paralyzed.
Div. One ruled that the owners of Bert’s Mega Mall, a motorsports dealership, are entitled to a new trial on Anthony Pedeferri’s claim that the dealership’s negligence in securing cargo in the back of Jeremy White’s vehicle caused White to be distracted, resulting in his vehicle careening off the roadway and causing the explosion.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brian M. Hoffstadt, sitting on assignment, said Ventura Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill Jr. erred in allowing an expert witness for the plaintiffs to testify that White’s consumption of huge quantities of marijuana prior to the collision likely did not contribute to his loss of control of the vehicle. That testimony was based on assumptions not supportable from the record, the appellate panel ruled.
Ventura County Accident
Pedeferri was injured on Dec. 19, 2007 after pulling over an SUV driven by Andreas Parra of Phoenix on the 101 Freeway just south of Padre Canyon Road, north of Ventura. The officer was standing next to the SUV when White’s vehicle hit it.
Pedeferri was thrown 78 feet as a result of the impact and was paralyzed from the armpits down. He had surgery the next day and spent eight months in rehabilitation.
A competitive road cyclist and triathlete before the incident, he went on to become a world-class paracyclist, competing in last summer’s Paralympics in London.
White was convicted of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Pedeferri, his wife, and Parra’s parents, sued White, as well as Bert’s, which had secured White’s newly purchased dirt bank along with a bike belonging to his friend and passenger Brian Kinsler
White testified that he felt and saw the bikes “hopping around” in the bed of his truck, moving from side to side and forward and back, before he heard a pop. He then looked over his left shoulder, then his right, without braking, steering the truck slightly to the right and into Parra’s vehicle.
He admitted having smoked three “bowls” of marijuana, as well as consuming a marijuana cookie and part of a marijuana cake and drinking an eight-ounce marijuana tea in the previous 24 hours. Two pounds of the drug were in the truck’s toolbox.
He tested positive for Paxil, Soma, Vicodin, Ecstasy and cocaine.
O’Neill allowed the plaintiff’s toxicology expert to testify that White was a “chronic user” of marijuana and thus unlikely to have been impaired at the time of the event. The judge excluded evidence regarding the other drugs, finding that in the absence of evidence regarding the quantities consumed, testimony about those substances would be more prejudicial than probative.
Jurors found White 67 percent responsible and Bert’s 33 percent responsible for the collision, and fixed damages at $49.6 million for all plaintiffs. O’Neill subsequently found the damages verdict to be excessive and likely an impassioned response to White’s drug use, and granted remittiturs, which plaintiffs accepted.
Judgment was entered against White for $14.84 million; against Bert’s for $7.3 million; and against both defendants jointly and severally for $13.01 million.
Hoffstadt, writing for the Court of Appeal, rejected Bert’s contention that it fulfilled its duty in the matter by securing the cargo in a manner sufficient to keep it from falling out of the truck, and had no duty to make it so secure it would not distract the driver.
“This is too fine a hair to split,” the jurist wrote. “A driver can be distracted by negligently loaded or secured cargo when it remains in the vehicle as well as when it falls out.”
Good Public Policy
Public policy, Hoffstadt concluded, supports imposing a duty on commercial vendors “to carefully load and secure cargo, with resulting liability for the negligent discharge of that duty. Imposing such a duty, he wrote, will discourage negligence, will not subject vendors to a liability that they cannot insure against, and will not be unduly burdensome to the vendors.
Hoffstadt went on, however, to conclude that it was prejudicial error to admit the toxicologist’s opinion regarding White’s impairment.
While White had used marijuana heavily right before the accident, there was little evidence that he was a chronic user, and no evidence at all that he had habitually driven while intoxicated, the judge noted. And the error was prejudicial to Bert’s because it was likely that jurors would have attributed a greater percentage of fault to White if they had not heard the testimony, Hoffstadt said.
The case is Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises, 13 S.O.S. 2465.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company