DIGEST: CABRAL V. RALPHS GROCERY CO.

15 Chap. L. Rev. 701 (No PDF)

Chapman Law Review

Winter 2012

Case Digests 

DIGEST: CABRAL V. RALPHS GROCERY CO.

Alis Rabet

Copyright (c) 2012 Chapman Law Review; Alis Rabet

Opinion by Werdegar, J., with Cantil-Sakaauye, C.J., Kennard, J., Baxter, J., Chin, J., Moreno, J., and Corrigan, J., concurring.

Issue

Whether a categorical exception to the general rule of ordinary care should be made exempting drivers from potential liability to other freeway users for stopping alongside a freeway.

Facts

On February 27, 2004, Hen Horn, a tractor-trailer truck driver for Ralphs Grocery Store (Ralphs), stopped his truck alongside the “dirt portion of the shoulder” of Interstate 10.  Horn frequently stopped at this location to eat a meal.  In the area where Horn was parked, the California Department of Transportation had placed an “Emergency Parking Only” sign.  Decedent Adelelmo Cabral was driving eastbound on Interstate 10 on his way home from work.  Witnesses saw Cabral’s vehicle traveling approximately seventy to eighty miles per hour as it swerved within its lane, and changed lanes to pass other vehicles.  Cabral’s vehicle then veered towards the outermost lane of traffic, “as if he was trying to get off the interstate.”  Cabral’s vehicle then traveled along the dirt portion of the road, until he hit the rear of Horn’s parked truck.  A witness did not see any indications of an attempt to brake or slow down before the accident.  Cabral died at the scene of the accident.  Since Cabral was not intoxicated at the time of the accident, experts believed Cabral either fell asleep while driving, or lost control due to an undiagnosed medical condition. 

Maria Cabral, Cabral’s widow, sued Ralphs for wrongful death, alleging that Horn was negligent in stopping for non-emergency reasons on the interstate’s shoulder, causing Cabral’s death.  Ralphs filed a cross-complaint to recover damages for its truck.  The jury found that both Cabral and Horn were negligent.  The jury assigned ninety percent of the fault to Cabral and ten percent of the fault to Horn.  Ralphs appealed the judgment, and a divided Court of Appeal panel reversed the verdict, finding that Ralphs “owed no duty to the decedent.” The majority concluded that the accident was too remote and not foreseeable since the truck was parked in an area where emergency parking is permitted.  The Supreme Court of California granted the plaintiff’s petition for review. 

Analysis

The court discussed California law establishing that “each person has a duty to use ordinary care and is liable for injuries caused by his [or her] failure to exercise reasonable care in the circumstances . . . .”  However, under Rowland v. Christian,  exceptions to the general duty of ordinary care can be justified by a balancing of certain factors, including the foreseeability of the harm to the plaintiff.  “[I]n the absence of a statutory provision establishing an exception to the general [duty of care], courts should create only one [exception] where [it is] ‘clearly supported by public policy.”’  Here, the court emphasized that it is for the court to decide whether the defendant owed a duty of ordinary care to the plaintiff, while it is for the jury to decide whether the defendant breached his or her duty. 

Since there was clearly no breach of duty,  the court focused on whether a freeway driver owes a duty of care to other drivers concerning the manner in which they park alongside California freeways, and whether a categorical exception should be made exempting drivers from potential liability to other freeway users for stopping alongside the freeway. 

The court discussed three considerations identified in Rowland: “the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, [and] the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered.”  To determine foreseeability, the court looked to official reports of freeway collisions and found that numerous decisions “involved collisions between vehicles leaving a highway and vehicles or other obstacles on the roadside.”  In addition, it is not uncommon for drivers to lose control of their vehicles, causing a collision with any obstacle in its way.  Furthermore, the Ralphs transportation manager, in charge of driver training, instructed truck drivers not to park alongside the freeway for non-emergency purposes.  The court found that based on these facts, the possibility of vehicles leaving the freeway and colliding with the parked truck was clearly foreseeable. 

Ralphs argued that the accident was not foreseeable and cited Whitton v. State of California  for the proposition that a collision between a vehicle departing the freeway and one stopped alongside is not foreseeable absent specific circumstances making an accident likely at the location.  However, the court found this argument to be unpersuasive, as Whitton decided a question of breach, and did not question the existence of a duty of care.  Ralphs then argued that placement of an “Emergency Parking Only” sign at the site implies that it was a safe place to park in an emergency, thus a “safe place to stop, period,” making a collision unforeseeable.  The court disagreed with Ralphs’ argument and emphasized that the question of foreseeability, for duty purposes, is whether it is generally foreseeable that a vehicle stopped alongside a freeway may be hit by another vehicle from the road, not whether Horn could have foreseen a specific accident at that particular spot on the freeway.  In addition, just because emergency parking was permitted at the location where Horn stopped, does not imply that a collision was unforeseeable.  The reasonable care standard depends on all circumstances, and there are many acts that are reasonable to do under an emergency that would be negligent but for the emergency.  The difference is on the justification. In emergency situations, “society tolerates that risk because allowing drivers to stop in an occasional emergency outweighs the risk.” 

In analyzing “the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered,” the court pointed out that such an analysis is “related to the question of foreseeability.”  The court found that Horn was negligent because, by stopping his truck alongside the freeway, he placed a massive obstacle that created the risk of collision for any vehicle leaving the freeway at that point–the same risk that eventuated and resulted in Cabral’s death. 

The court analyzed whether public policy supports creating a duty exception immunizing drivers from potential liability for negligently stopping their vehicles alongside freeways.  The court concluded that such an exception is not supported by public policy.  It reasoned that “[t]he overall policy of preventing future harm is ordinarily served, in tort law, by imposing the costs of negligent conduct upon those responsible.”  Although a driver who negligently stops his or her vehicle alongside a freeway does not act in an especially blameworthy manner, such an act should not receive legal protection. 

Ralphs argued that creating a new duty to avoid stopping near a freeway for non-emergency purposes would adversely impact roadway safety because tired or hungry drivers might continue driving when it is unsafe to do so.  However, the court did not think that recognizing negligence liability in this case would place heavy burdens on those in Ralphs’ situation or on the broader community.  The court reasoned that as seen earlier, drivers of Ralphs were already prohibited from making non-emergency stops along the freeway.  In addition, the court reasoned that drivers can find rest areas, truck stops, or other parking areas near freeway exits to eat meals and make telephone calls.  In fact, the court noted that Horn had the option of stopping at either of the two truck stops that were in the immediate vicinity near where he parked. 

The court concluded on the issue of public policy by arguing that if a categorical exemption were to be made in this situation for a truck driver to stop for a few minutes alongside the freeway, the court would then have to decide whether an exemption would be made for a truck driver who sleeps alongside the freeway instead of paying for a motel room.  Thus, a categorical exemption is not appropriate. 

Ralphs argued that there was insufficient evidence at trial to show that the negligent parking of Horn’s truck was the but-for cause of the collision.  Thus, Ralphs argued that the plaintiff failed to show that Horn’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Cabral’s death.  In the alternative, Ralphs argued that Horn’s stopping alongside the freeway should not be deemed the proximate cause of the collision.  The court, however, found that “had Horn’s [truck] not been stopped where it was, Cabral likely would have come to a stop without a fatal collision.”  The court reasoned that witnesses testified that Cabral’s vehicle was traveling parallel to the freeway at the time of the collision, and evidence showed that in the direction that Cabral was headed, there was a large expanse of hard-packed dirt, without obstacles, for Cabral to hit.  Thus, the jury could reasonably find that no fatal collision was likely had Horn’s truck not been parked in the shoulder area, making Horn’s negligent conduct a substantial factor in causing Cabral’s death. 

Ralphs then argued that Horn’s negligent conduct cannot be deemed a cause of the collision because the same collision would have occurred if Horn had stopped for emergency reasons.  The court found Ralphs’ argument unpersuasive, because the question relevant to but-for causation is what would have happened if Horn had not stopped his truck there, not what would have happened if Horn had a better reason to stop.  The court reasoned that while potential liability differs in the two situations, causation does not. 

Holding

The Supreme Court of California reversed the Court of Appeal.  The court held that there shall be no exception to the general duty of ordinary care exempting drivers from potential liability to other freeway users for stopping alongside a freeway. 

Legal Significance

This decision imposes potential liability on motorists parked alongside the freeway for non-emergency purposes, despite the specifics of the accident. The court decided not to create a categorical exception, and instead imposed a broad duty of ordinary care to motorists parked alongside the freeway, leaving it up to the jury to decide whether that duty was breached. Thus, a person who loses control of their car for any reason hitting a motorist parked alongside the freeway, is not the only one who could face potential liability for the accident. This case puts the responsibility on the motorist who stops alongside the freeway, to either pull off of the freeway or otherwise face potential liability for any resulting auto collisions.

Chapman Law Review selected these cases primarily for their legal significance. These cases are not exhaustive of the cases decided by the California Supreme Court during this period.
Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 248 P.3d 1170, 1173 (Cal. 2011) .
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Id. at 1181.
Id. at 1174.
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Id. (internal quotations omitted).
Rowland v. Christian, 443 P.2d 561 (Cal. 1968) .
Cabral, 248 P.3d at 1174 (citing Rowland, 443 P.2d at 567) .
Id. (citing Rowland, 443 P.2d at 564).
Id. at 1176 (stating that while deciding the duty issue, the court will assess the foreseeability of injury from the negligent conduct at issue).
The court observed that no question as to breach of duty of ordinary care is presented in this case since the jury found that Horn was ten percent at fault in the accident. Id. at 1176.
Id. This categorical exception depends on issues of foreseeability and whether public policy warrants such as exception.
Id. at 1177 (quoting Rowland, 443 P.2d at 564).
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Id. at 1178.
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Whitton v. State of California, 159 Cal. Rptr. 405 (Cal. Ct. App. 1979) .
Cabral, 248 P.3d at 1178 (citing Whitton, 159 Cal. Rptr. at 405).
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