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January 2010

Cabral v. Ralph's Grocery Company - Driver parked in an "emergency parking only" area adjacent to freeway owes no duty to drivers on freeway.

Plaintiff's expert accident reconstructionist's opinion also found to be inadmissable.

The appellate court decision reversed a jury verdict which found that the Ralph's driver who parked his tractor trailer in an "emergency parking only" area adjacent to the Interstate 10 freeway, owed a duty of care to a person who had driven his pickup truck off the freeway and into the Ralph's trailer. The driver of the pickup truck died as a result of the collision. 

An eyewitness testified that Mr. Cabral was traveling between 70 or 80 miles per hour within the no. 3 lane of the freeway when it suddenly turned right, crossed the no. 4 lane, the paved shoulder, and then hit the back of the tractor trailer which had stopped in the dirt area approximately 16 feet from the no. 4 lane.  There was an "emergency parking only" sign posted about 100 feet away from where the tractor trailer had stopped.  The tractor trailer driver, Mr. Horn, a Ralph's employee, had stopped in the area to eat lunch.

Though the jury returned a verdict that assessed 90% responsibility to the driver of the pickup truck, Mr. Cabral, and 10% to the Ralph's driver, Ralph's nevertheless appealed.  It argued that its driver owed no duty to Mr. Cabral, did not proximately cause the collision, and that the trial court erred in admitting testimony from Plaintiff's accident reconstruction expert.  

The appellate court ruled that Ralph's driver's conduct "was not wrongful towards Plaintiff."  A reasonable person would not conclude that his act of stopping on the side of the freeway, 16 feet from the no. 4 lane, would subject motorists using the freeway to an unreasonable risk of harm. The area was designated as a safe place to stop for emergency purposes.  Hence, a motorist stopping in the area could conceivably owe a duty only to other motorists who might need to stop for emergencies but could not do so because the area was already occupied.  Because the risk created by Horn's non-emergency stop was no greater than if he or another motorist had stopped for an emergency, his conduct did not create an "unreasonable risk of harm."

As an added bonus, the court provided guidance as to the all too frequent question of whether expert witness testimony is admissable.  Plaintiff's accident reconstruction expert had been allowed to testify that several marks on a diagram in the California Highway Patrol report reflected  conditions at the scene created by Mr. Cabral's pickup. The expert then opined that Mr. Cabral was applying his brakes when he hit the big rig.  The expert's opinion was based solely on the assumption that marks on the CHP diagram came from the pickup.  However, the officer who documented those marks on the diagram attached to the report never testified at trial.  No other documentary evidence or testimony supported any conclusion that the marks came from the pickup.  In fact, the officer charged with creating the entire report testified that he did not measure those marks, did not know how long the marks had been in the dirt, did not match the tread on the marks with the pickup's tires, and was not aware of any other physical evidence that would confirm the origin of those marks. 

The appellate court thus ruled that the trial court's admitting the foregoing testimony from Plaintiff's expert was erroneous.  Given the lack of any evidence establishing that the tire/skid marks were from Mr. Cabral's truck, Plaintiff's expert's opinion that Cabral could have returned safely to the freeway but for Horn's parked tractor trailer was inadmissible speculation. 

Click here to view the opinion.

Product & General Liability

Kenneth S. Perri

Product & General Liability