A New Tort is Born
California Case Note
Lawson v. Safeway Inc., California Court of Appeal, First District, Division One (December 30, 2010)
Only in California. A California Court of Appeal has found personal injury tort liability against a trucking company whose driver legally and lawfully parked his tractor-trailer off the highway in front of a hotel.
In Crescent City, California, a Safeway Inc. truck driver legally parked his tractor trailer off the side of southbound Highway 101 in front of the Anchor Beach Inn hotel. The tractor trailer was parked parallel to the southbound lane of Highway 101. The truck driver had parked at this location at least 40 times in the past. The driver would drive at night and sleep during the daytime. There were no signs or red curbs in front of the Anchor Beach Inn to prohibit parking.
Just south of the Anchor Beach Inn was the T-intersection of Highway 101 and a street by the name of Anchor Way. There is a stop sign on Anchor Way for traffic turning onto Highway 101.
On a clear afternoon, co-defendant, Mr. Kite, was driving a pick-up truck on Anchor Way, and had come to a full stop at the intersection of Highway 101 before initiating his left hand turn. Mr. Kite looked to his immediate left to check for southbound traffic on Highway 101, but his view was partially obstructed by the parked Safeway Inc. tractor trailer about 80 feet to his left. Mr. Kite crept his pick-up truck forward past the stop sign until he decided the intersection was clear. Meanwhile, a trike (three-wheel) motorcycle driven by plaintiff, Mr. Lawson, with his wife on the back was proceeding southbound on Highway 101. Thinking the intersection was clear, Mr. Kite drove his pick-up truck forward onto Highway 101 directly into the path of the Lawsons’ trike which impacted with the driver’s side of Mr. Kite’s pick-up truck. Mrs. Lawson was thrown from the trike and received serious injury.
Plaintiffs’ counsel brought suit against Mr. Kite for failing to yield the right of way, and against Safeway Inc. on a theory of “unsafe parking.” It was uncontested at trial the Safeway Inc. tractor was lawfully parked. Plaintiffs argued the Safeway Inc. truck, as parked, partially obstructed the sight lines of vehicles attempting to enter Highway 101 from Anchor Way. The jury returned with a special verdict finding Safeway Inc. 35% comparatively negligent for causing the accident.
Court of Appeal
The California Court of Appeal upheld the verdict. It reasoned the truck driver had a duty to park both legally and safely especially since the commercial truck was 65 feet long, 13 feet tall and 8 feet wide. The court of appeal was persuaded by expert testimony from plaintiffs’ truck driving expert who opined commercial truck drivers have special licenses and are trained, or should be, to be aware of the risk of blocking other drivers’ sight lines when parking. The Court of Appeal stated it agreed with the premise that drivers should ordinarily have no exposure to liability if they are legally parked. The Court also recognized that parked vehicles often obstruct sight views of oncoming traffic. However, the court blatantly reasoned “but, this case is different.” The primary reason being “the case involves an extremely large commercial truck. Such trucks create a greater than normal risk because by sheer size they obstruct more of the view than smaller vehicles.” And, licensed commercial truck drivers when parking their large tractor trailers should be aware of the need to take extra precautions.
This is a dangerous ruling by this California Court of Appeal. The Court, in essence, states that commercial truck drivers have a greater duty of care when parking their vehicles. This Court has created a new obligation under California law. Every time, and anywhere, the driver parks his or her truck, the driver must also make sure the truck is parked “safely” under the particular circumstances. “Safe parking” is a vague and unworkable legal standard which promises to be applied with the benefit of focused hindsight. This is an equally dangerous decision since the Court expeditiously creates a new basis of liability simply on the grounds a tractor trailer is “an extremely large vehicle.” We can expect this unfortunate decision to be often cited by the plaintiffs’ bar in any California trucking case where liability is being asserted against a tractor trailer which is otherwise being operated lawfully.