A truck driver working for Ralph’s Grocery Company (“Ralph’s”) parked his tractor-trailer in a designated emergency parking area alongside an interstate highway in order to have a snack. Decedent was driving his passenger vehicle home from work and sharply veered off the freeway and collided at high speed with the stopped tractor-trailer. The driver of the vehicle was not intoxicated at the time and experts opined that he most likely fell asleep at the wheel. At the trial level, the jury found decedent to be 90 percent comparatively negligence and Ralph’s to be 10 percent negligent. The case was appealed by Ralph’s and the appellate court held that Ralph’s owed no legal duty to avoid a collision since decedent’s actions were unforeseeable. The California Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the trial court’s verdict of 10 percent comparative negligence against Ralph’s. The Supreme Court reasoned that Civil Code section 1714 creates a general duty of each person to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. It is not categorically unforeseeable that a driver may lose control of his or her vehicle and leave the freeway and shoulder area and collide with a vehicle which is improperly stopped in a designated area for emergency parking only.
The court reasoned that if the tractor-trailer driver had been stopped for emergency purposes rather than the driver eating a snack there would be no liability. It seems that the California courts are beginning to carve out a new line of liability against parked big rigs. This case dovetails with a recent California Court of Appeal decision in Lawson v. Safeway (2010) 191 Cal.App.4th 400, which essentially held that a tractor-trailer driver had a duty to not only park legally, but also, to park safely. As reported in the earlier edition of Transport Update, the truck driver in Lawson was actually parked in a legal parking lot, but may have obstructed the view of a nearby intersection.
These truck liability parking cases are especially unfavorable in the context of California’s hybrid joint and several tort liability law known as “Proposition 51.” All plaintiff needs to prove is one percent comparative negligence against a trucking company for unsafe parking and that company will be 100 percent liable for all of plaintiff’s economic damages such as medical bills and wage loss. Accordingly, if a parked tractor-trailer is either struck or parked legally in the general vicinity of an accident, then we can expect plaintiff’s counsel to now name the motor carrier as an additional defendant.