The California Court of Appeal recently issued an unpublished opinion setting forth the elements of a negligence claim in order to assess whether summary judgment had been properly granted in favor of the defendant tow truck company. The pertinent facts of this case center on whether the towing company had breached its duty of care to the plaintiff and whether its conduct substantially caused his underlying injuries. The court of appeals analyzed the evidence, finding there were triable issues of fact preventing the grant of summary judgment in favor of the towing company.
On a rainy morning, in rush hour traffic, the plaintiff’s truck hydroplaned and crashed into a median barrier on the highway. He was uninjured, and his truck was safely towed to the right shoulder of the road by a tow truck company, assisted by the California Highway Patrol. The tow truck operated under the Freeway Safety Patrol Service (FSP) program. While waiting for another tow truck to tow the plaintiff’s truck off the freeway, standing near the rear of his vehicle, the plaintiff was struck by another vehicle, caused by the driver’s loss of control due to weather conditions. The plaintiff suffered serious harm, including the loss of his left leg below the knee, a broken pelvis, and other injuries.
The plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the driver, the CHP, Caltrans, and fictitious parties, and he amended his complaint to name the initial towing company. He alleged that the CHP and its agents had been negligent because it was foreseeable that another car would hydroplane and cause another accident. He also alleged that he was owed a reasonable duty of care not to be exposed to an unreasonable risk of injury, and leaving him on the shoulder of the road rather than towing him to safety breached that duty.
That towing company moved for summary judgment on the ground that their duty terminated when the plaintiff refused service from the driver, and the driver left the scene. Alternatively, they argued that they did not owe the plaintiff a duty once the other towing company arrived. The trial court granted their motion.
On appeal, the plaintiff alleged that the right shoulder of the freeway where the towing company placed him was not safe. He also contended that the towing company did not abide by the CHP officer’s instructions to wait with him until the other tow truck company arrived. In short, he argued there were triable issues of fact regarding whether the towing company breached a duty of care to him, precluding the grant of summary judgment.
In their analysis, the appellate court stated they are limited to considering the admissible evidence, and here, whether a triable issue was raised requires looking at evidence to which no objection was made. The appellate court analyzed the numerous evidentiary objections, including deposition testimony as well as the FSP manual.
Turning to the elements of a negligence claim, the court stated a plaintiff must show the defendant owed him or her a duty, breached this duty, and caused the resulting injuries and damages. Regarding duty, the court stated that here, the plaintiff contended the initial towing company owed him an affirmative duty of care, since it was a common carrier. He also contended that it had a contract to operate as an FSP operator, and the towing company was required to protect the plaintiff, as a stranded motorist.
California law provides that carriers of persons who act gratuitously are subject to the duty to use ordinary care, but carriers who act for reward must use the utmost care and diligence. The Civil Code defines common carriers as those who hold themselves out to the public to transport goods from place to place for profit, such as railways and buses. Ultimately, the court did not decide whether the towing company was a common carrier.
In terms of duty, the court stated that every person has a duty to use ordinary care toward others and is liable for injuries caused by failing to exercise reasonable care in the circumstances. Whether a duty is owed is a question of law. The towing company argued that it owed a duty to the plaintiff, but this was not “unlimited,” and the trial court had found the duty terminated once the plaintiff reached relative safety on the right shoulder of the freeway.
The appellate court stated that the breach of a duty of care is a question of fact, to be determined by the jury. The court stated that the evidence raised an issue regarding whether the towing company had been negligent. The court stated that the driver had not necessarily placed the plaintiff in a safe place. The towing company emphasized that the CHP officer had asked the plaintiff if he wanted further services from the towing company. While the towing company maintained it was “undisputed” that the plaintiff did not want further service, the plaintiff contended that he had asked to be taken off the freeway. Therefore, it was not an undisputed fact that the plaintiff refused further service from the DSP operator.
The court here also stated there was opinion evidence that raised an issue regarding the towing company’s potential negligence in acting toward the plaintiff. Triable issues of material fact prevented a finding that no reasonable jury would find that the towing company breached its duty of care to the plaintiff. Regarding causation, the court stated that the substantial factor test applies in cause-in-fact determinations. The towing company argued they did not cause the accident that led to the plaintiff’s injuries. The test looks at whether the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff harm.
The court rejected the the towing company’s argument that they did not cause the accident. The plaintiff’s expert, a licensed investigator specializing in accident reconstruction and a retired CHP officer, stated that the placement of the plaintiff’s truck near the edge line of the freeway shoulder, taking into consideration the weather and traffic conditions, created a substantial traffic hazard. The court stated that this created a factual question of whether the FSP operator brought the plaintiff to a safe location before he left. The court also stated that it was foreseeable another car would lose control in the rain and strike the plaintiff on the freeway shoulder.
The court stated there were disputed facts, and it could not be determined as a matter of law that the towing company did not substantially cause the collision that injured the plaintiff.
The court reversed the judgment granting summary judgment in favor of the towing company.
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