California Appellate Court Considers Excuse Instructions in Recent Car Accident Case

A state appellate court recently considered when an “excuse” jury instruction is appropriate in a California car accident case. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was driving on the highway when a mattress suddenly flew at her vehicle, causing her to swerve and hit the barrier. Eye-witnesses stated that they saw the mattress come from the defendant’s truck, and the plaintiff sued. California law requires that vehicles be loaded so that the materials on them stay put. The plaintiff alleged negligence per se, which is a finding of negligence based on a violation of the law.

The trial court gave a jury instruction stating that a violation of the law is excused if it is found that the defendant was using reasonable care but was still unable to obey the law. The jury found that the defendant was not negligent. However, at trial, the defendant driver stated that there was no mattress in his truck on the day in question. The jury, in reaching its decision, did not state whether it was based on a finding that the defendant’s truck was not the source of the mattress or whether the defendant had an excuse, based on the instruction in question. The plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court agreed with the plaintiff that the excuse instruction was improper and remanded the case back to the trial court. The court explained that the situation at hand did not present the special circumstances necessary to warrant an excuse instruction. There was no evidence that the defendant used reasonable care to ensure there was no mattress in the back of his truck because he relied on his coworker’s word that the truck was empty, even though it would have been relatively easy for him to check himself. Nor was there evidence that the defendant was unable to comply with the law in question, requiring items in trucks to be secured. Because there were no special circumstances, the court held that the excuse instruction was improperly given. Additionally, the court’s opinion explained that the instruction was improperly worded in that it failed to make clear that the burden to establish the excuse is on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff.

Because it is unknown whether the jury found the defendant to not be negligent based on a belief there was no mattress in the truck or based on an excuse theory, the court remanded the case and ordered a new trial.

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