California Court Upholds Grant of New Trial When Plaintiffs Were Misled About Trial Strategy and Prejudiced by Surprise

In a recent opinion, a California Court of Appeal held in favor of a trial court order granting a motion for a new trial.  The lower court determined that the plaintiffs were denied a fair trial by an “irregularihighway medianty in the proceedings,” as defined by the California Code of Civil Procedure.  The plaintiffs’ material rights were affected in this underlying car accident lawsuit because they could not properly prepare for trial or present evidence because they believed the defendants had waived a central issue – whether a concrete barrier posed a “trivial risk” within the dangerous condition element of a Government Code section 835 claim.

Victor Mercado suffered fatal injuries in a motor vehicle collision on Interstate 880. Mr. Mercado’s wife and heirs sued the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), alleging they maintained a dangerous condition of public property. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Caltrans, but the trial court granted a new trial for the plaintiffs, due to prejudice from an irregularity in the proceedings. Caltrans appealed on the ground that the trial court abused its discretion by granting a new trial.

The facts of this case indicated that Mr. Mercado was driving a tractor-trailer Waste Management truck on I-880 in San Leandro at 55 miles per hour. While traveling southbound, at the same time, Hiram Torres lost control of his Toyota Corolla when a rear tire suffered a blowout. Mr. Torres swerved into Mr. Mercado’s lane, colliding with his tractor-trailer.  The impact caused Mr. Mercado’s vehicle to cross two lanes of traffic and crash into a concrete barrier and northbound traffic. More collisions resulted, as well as a fire and explosion. Mr. Mercado survived the collisions but died from injuries caused by the fire.

The plaintiffs then filed a complaint for damages for Mr. Mercado’s wrongful death. Two causes of action included negligence claims against Caltrans for maintaining a dangerous and defective condition of the roadway, in violation of section 835.  According to section 830, a “dangerous condition” includes a property that creates a substantial risk of injury when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.  In short, the plaintiffs contended Caltrans negligently maintained the center divider, and it did not serve its intended function of redirecting vehicles back into their proper lanes of travel.

According to the appellate court, the “sometimes confusing” procedural history included discovery disputes and an eventual motion for summary judgment by Caltrans, alleging that it was not liable for damages based on Mr. Mercado’s fatality because the condition of its property only resulted in an insignificant risk of harm. The plaintiffs then argued this issue had been waived when Caltrans withdrew its fourth affirmative defense during discovery. The court denied the motion for summary judgment.

During trial, the plaintiffs argued that the concrete barrier created a dangerous condition because it was meant to prevent southbound vehicles from entering northbound traffic, but it failed to do so.  The plaintiffs also contended that there was a foreseeable risk of harm posed by the concrete barrier because big rigs used the road frequently. The defendants focused on the plaintiffs’ burden of proving a dangerous condition caused the injury.  The focus was on the specific meaning of “dangerous condition,” due to law limiting state exposure to liability for accidents on public property.  The defendants contended that the barrier did not pose a substantial risk of injury when used with care.

The jury found the property was not in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident.  The plaintiffs moved for a new trial, and the trial court granted their motion.  While the trial court noted that the issue of a trivial risk is included within the dangerous condition element of a section 835 claim, the plaintiffs reasonably believed the issue was not disputed, due to the waiver of the defendants’ fourth affirmative defense and their representations they would not argue the issue of a trivial defect.  The trial court found the plaintiffs had been prejudiced regarding their trial preparation and ability to present evidence to the jury.

In its discussion, the appellate court stated that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial.  Caltrans adopted a litigation strategy that surprised and misled both the plaintiffs and the trial court.  Caltrans alleged the absence of a substantial risk of injury as an affirmative defense. But then it withdrew this defense so that it would not have to respond to discovery.  The appellate court stated that the plaintiffs reasonably relied on pre-trial discovery, which made clear Caltrans would not pursue the issue of substantial risk.  As a result, the plaintiffs had not prepared to prove the issue at trial. They were genuinely surprised, and they were prejudiced because Caltrans ended up making substantial risk the focus of their case, despite the fact the plaintiffs reasonably believed the issue had been waived.

The appellate court rejected Caltrans’ claim that they contested the issue of substantial risk from the beginning of the case.  The court here also noted that only the trial judge could determine whether the plaintiffs were in fact genuinely surprised by the events.  In this case, the trial court found that Caltrans’ strategy created an irregularity in the proceedings, and that resulted in an unfair surprise that then prejudiced the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs were misled about Caltrans’ trial strategy and prevented from presenting their best case to the jury.

The main point, the court stated, was that the plaintiffs did not have a fair chance to show the evidence that was introduced at trial supported their theory that the risk of harm had been substantial.  The plaintiffs believed Caltrans would not dispute that issue.

The appellate court affirmed the order granting the plaintiffs a new trial.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm provide legal representation to victims and their families throughout Southern California in personal injury claims for compensation. Contact our office today for a free consultation at 866-422-7222 or complete our online form.

More Blog Posts:

Appellate Court Holds Sham Pleading Did Not Apply in California Car Accident Case When Plaintiffs Were Unclear on Factual Basis for Liability,  Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 22, 2016

California Court of Appeal Finds in Favor of Plaintiff in Car Accident Lawsuit When Evidence Fails to Show Plaintiff’s Consent to Settlement Agreement, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, June 9, 2016

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