Monday, December 30, 2019
Court of Appeal:
‘Accident’ Encompasses Initial Collision and Ensuing Harms
Opinion Says Maker of Light Pole With Which Motorist Collided After Vehicle Was Rear-Ended Can Be Liable If Injuries Were Intensified Based on Failure of Apparatus to Break Away Upon Impact
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A traffic “accident” includes not only the initial collision, but also mishaps that immediately ensue, the Third District Court of Appeal held Friday, reversing summary judgment in favor of a company that manufactured a pole that failed to break-away, as it was supposed to, when a motorist ran into it after losing control of her vehicle after it was rear-ended.
Brian L. Kline, an employee of Union Pacific Railroad Company who was driving an SUV, in September 2014 hit a car being driven by Katie M. Steffen; her vehicle spun off a freeway, into a ditch, hitting a light pole made by Ameron Pole Products LLC; Steffen sued Union Pacific, based on Kline’s negligence, and Ameron, predicated on a defect in the pole which, she contended, caused her injuries to be intensified.
Union Pacific cross-complained against Ameron for equitable indemnity and apportionment. Ameron insisted it was not liable because, whatever condition the light pole was in, the accident would still have occurred, and it was faultless in connection with it.
Retired Yolo Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Warriner, sitting on assignment, agreed with Ameron, granting it summary judgment on the cross-action.
Arguing for an affirmance, Ameron quoted the 2017 edition of Witkin’s Summary of California as saying (with emphasis added by the Court of Appeal in Friday’s opinion):
“The first element of legal cause is cause in fact: i.e., it is necessary to show that the defendant’s negligence contributed in some way to the plaintiff’s injury, so that ‘but for’ the defendant’s negligence the injury would not have been sustained. If the accident would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause. The ‘but for’ rule has traditionally been applied to determine cause in fact.”
Ameron also pointed to two cases citing that language.
Justice Jonathan Renner wrote for the Third District in responding:
“Ameron appears to assume that the ‘accident,’ in this case, was the initial collision with Brian, which would have occurred whether or not the light pole was defective—or even existed at all. But the word ‘accident’ can also be understood to refer to an event that produces harm or the harm itself….This distinction informs our understanding of the quoted language from Witkin. When the word ‘accident’ is understood to encompass both accidents that are the cause of injury and injuries that are themselves accidents, it becomes clear that the quoted language merely expresses the rule that defendants cannot be liable for negligence that does not cause harm.”
“Nothing in Witkin suggests that the word ‘accident,’ as used here, was intended to express anything other than the usual rule. Certainly, nothing suggests that a negligent tortfeasor can escape liability on the grounds that another tortfeasor set in motion the chain reaction that culminated in the plaintiff’s injury.”
Renner said the two cases Ameron points to—Arthur v. Santa Monica Dairy Co., decided in 1960, and Toste v. CalPortland Construction, handed down in 2016, both emanating from this district—“are similar in that both involved ‘accidents; that produced a single set of injuries, the nature and severity of which would have been the same regardless of the defendant’s negligence.” He pointed out:
“In this case, by contrast, the second amended complaint suggests that Katie suffered one set of injuries as a result of the collision with Brian, and an additional set of injuries as a result of the light pole’s failure to break away. Although Ameron’s negligence may not have caused the initial collision with Brian, we cannot say that Katie’s injuries would have been the same had the light pole functioned as intended. Put another way, the accident might not have happened in the same way, in that Katie’s injuries might have been prevented or lessened, but for Ameron’s negligence.”
Pacific Excavation, which installed the light pole, is also a defendant in Steffen’s action. Union Pacific and Ameron were the only parties to the appeal.
The case is Union Pacific Railroad v. Ameron Pole Products, 2019 S.O.S. 4524.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company