Friday, February 27, 2015
S.C. Revives Claim That CHP Is Liable in Catastrophic Accident
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Highway Patrol is potentially liable for the negligence of tow truck drivers whose companies have contracted to assist disabled motorists under a program supervised by the CHP.
The justices agreed that statutes governing the Freeway Service Patrol program do not make the CHP the “special employer” of drivers participating in the program. But they unanimously reversed a Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. Three ruling that broadly freed the CHP from liability for the negligence of program participants.
Justice Carol Corrigan explained for the high court:
“We agree with the Court of Appeal that the FSP statutes, as written, are incompatible with a special employment relationship between CHP and tow truck drivers. However, this conclusion does not foreclose the possibility that CHP might act as a special employer in particular circumstances. The statutes authorize CHP to perform certain functions, but do not bar it from taking on other responsibilities. Our resolution of the question of law presented here does not rule out CHP’s liability on the facts, which is a question beyond the scope of our review.”
The service patrol program, authorized by statute, seeks to free the roads of traffic impediments by allowing local transportation agencies to contract with towing companies to assist stranded motorists. The CHP oversees the program, performing background checks, training the drivers, inspecting the vehicles, dispatching drivers, and investigating complaints.
Mayra Alvarado suffered catastrophic brain injuries, and her child lesser injuries, after a participating tow truck rear-ended her car on I-5. She sued the driver, his employer, the Orange County Transportation Authority, and the CHP.
The CHP moved for summary judgment, which Orange Superior Court Judge Robert Moss denied, finding that a triable issue existed as to whether the agency was liable as a special employer. Justice William Bedsworth, writing for the Court of Appeal, disagreed and said the CHP was entitled to summary judgment because it cannot be the special employer of an FSP tow truck driver.
The justice said the issue was purely one of statutory interpretation.
Corrigan, however, noted that the CHP is authorized not only to oversee FSP contracts between local transportation agencies and tow truck operators—as in Alvarado’s case—but to enter into its own contracts.
“Conceivably, pursuant to that authority or otherwise, CHP might agree to a role that would bring it within the scope of the special employment doctrine,” Corrigan wrote.
The court remanded the case so that the plaintiffs may present additional evidence regarding the relationship between the CHP and the towing company in the particular case.
The case of State of California ex rel. Department of the California Highway Patrol v. Superior Court (Alvarado), 15 S.O.S. 1120, was argued in the Supreme Court by Deputy Attorney General Joel A. Davis of Los Angeles for the CHP and John S. West of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg for the plaintiffs.
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