Friday, August 17, 2001
Officer Has Duty to Protect Motorist Stopped in Traffic, S.C. Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A law enforcement officer who stops an alleged traffic violator has a duty not to direct the driver to pull over into a spot where there is an unreasonable risk of injury by third parties, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 4-2 decision, the justices reinstated a suit charging the California Highway Patrol with negligence in connection with a 1996 accident on six-lane Highway 78 in San Diego County.
Four people, three of them small children, were seriously injured when an apparently inattentive driver’s pickup truck crashed into their Toyota Camry, which had pulled into the center median at the direction of a CHP officer.
On the day of the accident, Cecelio Lugtu was driving the Camry about 85 mph in the far left lane before being pulled over. It was “dry, visibility was good and traffic was moderate to fairly heavy,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George explained in his opinion for the high court.
Officer Richard Hedgecock dove over the median barrier when he realized that the pickup truck was heading towards him and towards the stopped Camry.
San Diego Superior Court Judge David Moon Jr. said Hedgecock owed no duty of care to the plaintiffs, wasn’t negligent, and didn’t cause the injuries.
Hedgecock testified that CHP procedures gave him discretion whether to stop a driver in the median area or on the right shoulder. He said he thought stopping the vehicle in the median, which was 10 feet wide, was safer than the shoulder, which was about eight feet wide.
The plaintiffs countered by citing the CHP Officer Safety Manual, which advises that “effective techniques should be used to ensure stopping on the right shoulder rather than in the median.” The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. One found that a duty existed as a matter of law and that there were triable issues of negligence and causation.
The Supreme Court agreed.
George, joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn M. Werdegar, and Ming Chin, said that officer owed the motorists a duty of reasonable care and that a jury would have to decide whether he fulfilled that duty.
A number of California cases, the chief justice explained, have held traffic officers to a duty of reasonable care for the safety of persons whom the officer stops. That duty, George said, “includes the obligation not to expose such persons to an unreasonable risk of injury by third parties.”
The chief justice went on to reject the contention that any duty Hedgecock had was satisfied once the Lugtu vehicle was entirely out of the traffic lanes.
“From a commonsense perspective, defendants’ proposal has little to recommend it,” George wrote. “…Indeed, under the defendants’ formulation, a law enforcement officer’s conduct would be deemed to satisfy the duty of reasonable care even if the center median of a highway is very narrow and the right shoulder generously wide, and even if there is no barrier to traffic traveling in the other direction, and the officer chooses the sole location that is not readily visible to oncoming traffic”
In dissent, Justice Janice Rogers Brown said the high court’s decision would likely cause more accidents than it prevents because it will reduce officers’ ability to use their own discretion and force them to make all traffic stops on the right shoulder, even when it may be safer to stop in the median.
Brown argued that the high court, as a matter of public policy, should impose “a more specific standard of care than the reasonably prudent person standard” and weigh in on the side of officers “enforcing the rules of the road.”
Brown noted that the safety manual allows for officer discretion as to whether to direct stopped motorists onto the median or the shoulder. The dissenting justice argued that an officer has no duty to choose one over the other unless a particular choice would subject the occupants to unusual risks of harm, not just those “inherent in every traffic stop.”
Brown was joined by Justice Marvin Baxter.
The appeal was argued by Marina Del Rey attorney Charles B. O’Reilly for the plaintiffs—Rita Gunasekaran of Haight, Brown & Bonesteel worked on the brief, and Deputy Attorney General Karen M. Walter for the CHP.
The case is Lugtu v. California Highway Patrol, S088116.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company