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California Supreme Court Expands Duty of Driver Parked Off Highway

By Gregory M. Smith and Barry Clifford Snyder

March 14, 2011

Following on the heels of Lawson v. Safeway, Inc., 191 Cal.App.4th 400 (2010), summarized here, the California Supreme Court has expanded the duty of a commercial driver, parked off the highway in an emergency parking area. The Lawson court concluded that a commercial driver could be held negligent for legally parking in an area which obstructs views of other motorists on the road. In Cabral v. Ralph's Grocery Company 2011 DJDAR 3140, a truck driver for Ralph's stopped his tractor trailer unit in a dirt shoulder area, off of Interstate 10 near Interstate 15, marked by a sign as "Emergency Parking Only" to have a snack prepared by his wife. This was an area in which truck drivers frequently stopped and where this particular driver had regularly stopped before. He was parked 16 feet from the nearest lane of travel.

Adelelmo Cabral was the driver of a pickup truck, eastbound on Interstate 10, traveling about 70-80 MPH. A witness testified that Cabral pickup truck swerved within its lane and then changed lanes rapidly, passing other vehicles. Finally, the truck abruptly crossed lanes and left the freeway to the right, traveling parallel on the shoulder until it impacted the rear of the Ralph's trailer. He died as a result of the collision and his wife brought suit. Testimony was that Cabral's conduct was either as a result of falling asleep or an emergency medical condition. Ralph's conceded that its driver could have been cited for his conduct in parking in the area. A jury found Cabral 90% responsible and Ralph's 10%, with a net verdict to the wife of $475,298. Ralph's successfully appealed on the grounds it owed no duty to the decedent. Plaintiff petitioned the California Supreme Court and this opinion resulted.

The Supreme Court framed the issue as "whether a freeway driver owes other drivers a duty of ordinary care in choosing whether, where and how to stop on the side of the road." It then concluded that it was "clearly foreseeable" that a vehicle parked by the side of the road may be struck by another vehicle leaving the freeway, resulting in injury to either vehicle's occupants. And, stopping alongside a highway to eat a meal, take a nap, make a non-emergency telephone call, or conduct personal business (described as "discretionary purposes") was found to be afforded no special legal protection.

What is particularly troubling about this opinion is the court's conclusion that a driver leaving the roadway, despite the location and the conditions, is clearly foreseeable. Previously, duty had normally been predicated on the history of the location, i.e., whether other similar incidents had occurred. The California Supreme Court now effectively precludes a "no duty" argument, either on Motion for Summary Judgment or at trial, where a commercial or other driver parks off the highway for "discretionary purposes." It does seem that the Court, although not expressly saying so, intended to allow a specific exception when an emergency situation necessitated the stop.