California Court of Appeal Upholds Jury Verdict in Wrongful Death Lawsuit Due to Plaintiff’s Failure to Prove Negligence Substantially Caused the Harm Suffered

In a recent California Court of Appeal decision, the court reviewed a personal injury case stemming from a fatality suffered at a construction site.  In this wrongful death action, the son of the deceased person brought negligence claims against the driver of a truck, the construction company, and the truck hauling service after the truck backed up and hit his father during an asphalt paving project. While the jury found that the driver was negligent, they did not conclude that his negligence substantially caused the harm. On appeal, the court reviewed the plaintiff’s allegations that the trial court abused its discretion regarding the particular jury instructions issued, and that the evidence did not support the verdict.

On June 17, 2010, Paul Michaelson was working as a truck driver for V&J Rock Transport when he backed up his truck and ran over Dan Toste at an asphalting project on State Route 135.  Mr. Toste was the project’s general contractor, and he had been standing behind the truck trailer in a blind spot. Mr. Michaelson agreed to take a drug test and tested positive for marijuana, having a high level of marijuana metabolite in his urine.

Anthony Toste brought a wrongful death action on behalf of his father, alleging negligence and negligence per se.  Before trial, Mr. Michaelson and V&J Rock Transport made two offers to compromise ($200,001 and $750,001) that were rejected by the appellant. Mr. Toste also rejected CalPortland’s offer to compromise ($15,000).

In regard to the negligence per se theory, the jury instructions stated that a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation prohibits truck drivers from using marijuana.  Mr. Toste’s negligence instructions included a claim that Mr. Michaelson’s truck had a backup alarm that was inaudible and that Mr. Michaelson backed up in a negligent manner.

By a special verdict, the jury found that Mr. Michaelson was negligent but that his negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the death.  They also found that V&J Rock Transport and CalPortland Construction were not negligent. Mr. Toste then moved for a new trial, based on the insufficiency of the evidence and juror misconduct.  The trial court denied the motion and awarded expert witness fees based on the offers to compromise before the trial, per section 998.

On appeal, Mr. Toste alleged that the evidence compelled a finding that Mr. Michaelson’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing his father’s death. The appellate court stated the rule that in a substantial evidence case, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the judgment. Here, the court rejected Mr. Toste’s claim that it was stipulated that Mr. Michaelson caused the traffic fatality.

The appellate court stated it had been stipulated, or agreed, that Dan Toste died from a blunt force trauma as a result of being run over by the truck. But the issue of causation was not explained by the stipulation.  If Mr. Michaelson had stipulated to causation, it would have been essentially an admission of liability. Here, to prove causation, which was a key issue in the case, Mr. Toste had to show that Mr. Michaelson’s breached duty substantially caused the harm suffered by Dan Toste.

Mr. Toste’s main liability theory was negligence per se. He contended that truck drivers are required to remain drug free, and if they are not and someone is injured, the driver is responsible for that harm. The jury had been instructed about Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation 49 C.F.R. section 382.213.  Mr. Toste had the burden of proving causation, even though he essentially used the federal safety regulation to prove the duty of care.

Here, the trial court did not find the violation of the federal safety regulation substantially caused the traffic fatality.  It was reasonable for the jury to have concluded that the traffic fatality resulted from Dan Toste’s inattentiveness and not Mr. Michaelson’s marijuana use. The court stated that the jury’s finding was that the accident would have happened whether or not Mr. Michaelson was under the influence of marijuana. Dan Toste was run over because he was not mindful of the hazards at the job site.

The court also rejected Mr. Toste’s claim that by instructing the jury on state laws prohibiting a person from driving while under the influence of any drug, the federal safety regulation was rendered irrelevant.  The negligence per se instruction made clear that the jury must decide whether Mr. Michaelson violated one or more of the laws.  Additionally, the court stated that in negligence per se actions, a plaintiff must show evidence of a violation of a law as well as a substantial probability that the plaintiff’s injury resulted from the violation of the law.

The court affirmed the judgment as it related to Mr. Michaelson and V&J Rock Transport, apart from the cost award relating to the offers to compromise.  The court reversed and remanded the cost award for a recalculation pursuant to the amended section 998, subdivision (c)(1).

At Sharifi Firm, our Southern California personal injury attorneys help injured individuals pursue claims for compensation. Our office provides a no-obligation consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Holds Prevailing Defendants in Personal Injury Lawsuit Can Recover Expert Fees Only When Judgment Entered as to All Defendants, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, February 25, 2016

California Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Defendant Due to Failure to Meet Burden of Proof Regarding Negligence Claim, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, January 27, 2016

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