Company Owes No Duty to Plaintiffs to Prevent Intoxicated Truck Driver from Loading Truck and Driving, According to California Court of Appeal

The California Court of Appeal recently held, in an unpublished opinion, that a company that failed to intervene when a truck driver may have appeared drunk while loading their cargo was not liable for the resulting injuries caused by that driver.  This opinion focused on the fact that since no special relationship had been alleged,truck the company could not be liable for its omission (failing to act).  In stating that they found no duty on the part of the company, the court noted that it was a harsh rule, the rule of non-liability for nonfeasance.

After a fatal truck accident, surviving family members brought a lawsuit against the truck driver, his employer, and the onion company where the driver loaded his truck.  At issue on appeal was whether the lower court had properly found that the onion company was not liable under an entrustment allegation, denying the plaintiffs’ request to amend and allege misfeasance, since the driver had appeared drunk, and the company had not refused to load the truck.  In their appeal, the plaintiffs contended that they should have been able to amend their complaint.

The facts in the complaint stated that while stopped at a stop sign, the truck driver hit the plaintiffs’ car from behind, killing a mother and her son, while the father and daughter were injured.  The truck driver had been intoxicated and was charged with vehicular manslaughter.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged negligence and argued that the defendants were liable for the truck driver’s drunk driving because they had entrusted the truck to him and were his principals.  In its answer, the onion company stated that it had not employed the truck driver and did not own the truck he drove.  Additionally, the evidence showed that the onion company employees had not noticed anything about the truck driver that would have indicated he had been intoxicated.

The plaintiffs focused their argument on the fact that the truck driver had been obviously drunk and that by failing to refuse to load his truck, the onion company had been negligent.

The trial court found that the plaintiffs had not shown a triable issue of material fact that supported any of their causes of action, since the company had not owned the truck or employed the driver. Furthermore, the court stated there was no authority to support a finding of nonfeasance, which would take place for failing to stop the driver.  In short, since the company had not employed the driver or entrusted him with the truck, it did not need to try and stop him from loading his truck, even if he appeared intoxicated.

On appeal, the court stated that the plaintiffs’ theory of liability was that the company had a duty to observe the truck driver and refuse to load his truck, based on his obvious drunkenness.  The appellate court stated that in the absence of a special relationship, there was no duty to stop the driver by refusing to load his truck.

The court stated that tort law holds there is no duty to control the conduct of a third party and prevent them from causing harm, unless a special relationship exists, imposing a duty to control this third party. Nonfeasance occurs when there is a special relationship, and a third party’s behavior should have been stopped.  Here, the plaintiffs claimed that the company failed to observe the driver’s intoxication and take steps to prevent him from driving his truck. The court made clear that this contention was based on an omission, rather than an action.  But since no special relationship was alleged, the company could not be subject to negligence liability for failing to act.

The court stated that they recognized their “no-duty rule” might be criticized as harsh to plaintiffs.  The court stated that there should be no requirement imposed in this case, and this rule conforms to common expectations.

The court affirmed the judgment of the trial court in favor of the defendant onion company.

After a truck accident, you have a right to pursue compensation from any at-fault party, including the truck driver and potentially their employer.  At Sharifi Firm, our skilled truck accident attorneys can help you understand your rights and advocate on your behalf. We provide a complimentary consultation. Contact our offices by calling (866) 422-7222 or completing our online form.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Rules on Liability of Motor Carrier for Negligence of Contract Driver, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 13, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules on Trucking Accident Workers’ Compensation Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 4, 2015

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