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California Court Holds Commercial Drivers Legally Parked Can Still Be Liable to Motorists

February 1, 2011

The California Court of Appeals for the First Appellate District recently held that the driver of a commercial vehicle, although legally parked, can still be held liable to motorists for creating an unreasonable risk of harm. A Safeway tractor trailer was parked legally on the roadside of US Highway 101 in northern California, near an intersection. The motorcyclist plaintiff and the pickup truck driver who collided with plaintiff, both contended that the Safeway unit obscured the pickup truck driver's view of traffic on the highway as he attempted to cross a portion of the highway and turn left onto the highway. Safeway and its counsel defended on the basis that the tractor trailer unit was legally parked and under those circumstances, no duty of care was owed to motorists on the highway.

In Lawson v. Safeway, Inc. 191 Cal.App.4th 400 [2010], the court reviewed a lower court verdict in which the jury apportioned liability almost equally between Safeway, the State of California and the third defendant pickup truck driver. The court noted that the general rule is that all persons have a duty to use ordinary care to prevent others from being injured as a result of their conduct. And, it began its opinion by observing that drivers ordinarily should have no liability if they are legally parked, and that obscured sight lines from parked vehicles are an unavoidable risk with which drivers must generally be expected to cope. However, the court then held that the facts of this case involved a risk of foreseeable harm that was unreasonable and avoidable, and imposed a duty on the commercial driver.

The court found four factors to support its reasoning: (1) The accident involved a very large (65 feet lone, 13 ½ feet high, 8 ½ feet wide) commercial vehicle, (2) there was expert testimony that commercial drivers are professionally trained to take into account the sight lines of other drivers, (3) the highway had a high posted speed, increasing the potential of serious injury, and (4) the Safeway driver had other nearby places to safely park. Recognizing that the result was a decision of first impression in California, the court justified its conclusion by pointing out that similar holdings could be found in Connecticut, Missouri, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, Oregon, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Washington.

Hopefully, this decision will not lead to a multitude of additional claims bringing in carriers and owner operators. It does, however, provide one more bullet in the plaintiffs' arsenal against the transportation industry.