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Maria Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Company

February 28, 2011

MARIA CABRAL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RALPHS GROCERY COMPANY, RESPONDENT,



San Bernardino County Defendant and Appellant. Super. Ct. No. RCV089849 Ct.App. 4/2 E044098

A truck driver working for Ralphs Grocery Company (Ralphs) stopped his tractor-trailer rig alongside an interstate highway in order to have a snack. Plaintiff's husband, decedent Adelelmo Cabral, driving his pickup truck home from work, veered suddenly off the freeway and collided at high speed with the rear of the stopped trailer, resulting in his own death. (Cabral was not intoxicated at the time; experts opined he either fell asleep at the wheel or lost control due to an undiagnosed medical condition.) The jury found both decedent and the Ralphs driver to have been negligent and to have caused the accident, but allocated 90 percent of the fault to decedent and only 10 percent to the Ralphs driver. The trial court denied Ralphs's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and entered a judgment awarding plaintiff damages for the wrongful death of her husband.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding Ralphs owed no legal duty to avoid a collision between a negligent driver and the company's stopped truck. We disagree with the Court of Appeal's conclusions. California law establishes the general duty of each person to exercise, in his or her activities, reasonable care for the safety of others. (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a).) While this court may and sometimes does find exceptions to the general duty rule, the recognized grounds for doing so (Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 112-113) are lacking here. That drivers may lose control of their vehicles and leave a freeway for the shoulder area, where they may collide with any obstacle placed there, is not categorically unforeseeable. Nor does public policy clearly demand that truck drivers be universally permitted, without the possibility of civil liability for a collision, to take non-emergency breaks alongside freeways in areas where regulations permit only emergency parking.

Were we to recognize the categorical exemption from the duty of ordinary care Ralphs seeks, no liability could be imposed even when a driver unjustifiably stops his or her vehicle alongside the freeway in particularly dangerous circumstances. For example, parking a tractor-trailer for the night immediately next to the freeway traffic lanes on the outside of a poorly lit downhill curve, merely in order to save the cost of a spot in a truck stop, could well be considered negligent. Yet the parking truck driver in that scenario would as a matter of law bear no responsibility for a collision if, as Ralphs contends, no duty exists to exercise reasonable care, in parking alongside a freeway, for the safety of motorists who may unintentionally leave the freeway. We therefore decline to create a categorical rule exempting those parking alongside freeways from the duty of drivers to exercise ordinary care for others in their use of streets and highways.

The general duty of ordinary care being applicable, it was for the jury to determine whether the Ralphs driver breached that duty, whether decedent Cabral was also negligent, whose negligence caused the collision, and how to allocate comparative fault between the parties. As Ralphs does not contend the evidence was insufficient to support the finding the company breached its duty of ordinary care and bore one-tenth of the total fault for the accident, we do not decide that question.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On the day of the accident, February 27, 2004, Hen Horn was employed by Ralphs as a tractor-trailer truck driver. On that evening, while driving his delivery route eastbound on Interstate 10, Horn stopped just beyond the Interstate 15 crossing to have a snack. He regularly made a brief stop at this location to eat part of the meal his wife had prepared for him. Horn stopped the tractor-trailer rig off the paved roadway, on what the investigating California Highway Patrol officer, Michael Migliacci, described as "the dirt portion of the shoulder." There is a large dirt area at that location between the eastbound Interstate 10 lanes and a transition road from northbound Interstate 15. In 2001, at the request of the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) had placed an "Emergency Parking Only" sign in the area. Horn saw the sign from where he stopped, about 16 feet from the outermost traffic lane.*fn1

Decedent Adelelmo Cabral was driving home from work alone in his pickup truck, eastbound on Interstate 10. Juan Perez, driving on the freeway behind him, saw decedent's vehicle, which was traveling around 70 or 80 miles per hour, swerve within its lane, then change lanes rapidly and pass other vehicles. Finally, the pickup truck abruptly crossed the outermost lane of traffic and left the freeway "as if he was trying to get off the interstate." Decedent's vehicle then traveled parallel to the road along the adjacent dirt until it hit the rear of Horn's trailer. Perez saw no brake lights or other indications of an attempt to slow down before the collision.

A toxicology report on Cabral, who died at the scene, was negative. In the absence of evidence of intoxication, suicide, mechanical defects or a medical condition, and considering how long Cabral had been awake on the day of the accident (which occurred in the evening), an expert witness called by plaintiff believed Cabral had fallen asleep while driving. A defense expert, believing Cabral's reported lane and speed changes were inconsistent with the results of fatigue, opined the accident probably resulted from an unknown medical condition.

Cabral's widow, plaintiff Maria Cabral, sued Ralphs for wrongful death, alleging the company's employee, Horn, had caused decedent's death through his negligence in stopping for non-emergency reasons on the freeway shoulder. Ralphs cross-complained for damage to its tractor-trailer. The jury found both Cabral and Horn were negligent, both their negligent acts were substantial factors in causing Cabral's death, and Cabral's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the damage to Ralphs's tractor-trailer. The jury assigned 90 percent of the responsibility for the accident to Cabral and 10 percent to Horn. Plaintiff's total economic damages were fixed by the jury at $480,023; non-economic damages were $4.33 million. After reduction for Cabral's 90 percent comparative fault and offset by the $4,725 awarded Ralphs on its cross-complaint, plaintiff's net damage award was $475,298.

Ralphs appealed from the judgment on the jury verdict and from the trial court's denial of its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. A divided panel of the Court of Appeal reversed, agreeing with Ralphs that the company was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict because it "owed no duty to Decedent." The majority rested its holding primarily on its conclusions that the possibility of a driver losing control of his or her vehicle and colliding with a tractor-trailer stopped off the freeway, in an area in which emergency parking is permitted, is too remote to be considered foreseeable and that the societal burden of imposing a duty would be great, as parked motorists or neighboring property owners could be held liable for failure to provide a "safe landing" for drivers leaving any type of roadway.

We granted plaintiff's petition for review.

DISCUSSION

"A motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict may be granted only if it appears from the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the party securing the verdict, that there is no substantial evidence in support. [Citation.] [¶] . . . As in the trial court, the standard of review [on appeal] is whether any substantial evidence--contradicted or uncontradicted--supports the jury's conclusion." (Sweatman v. Department of Veterans Affairs (2001) 25 Cal.4th 62, 68.) In part II, post, we will consider whether substantial evidence supports the jury's verdict as to causation. We first must decide whether Ralphs owed plaintiff a duty of reasonable care to avoid injury to her husband, decedent Adelelmo Cabral. Duty is a question of law for the court, to be reviewed de novo on appeal. (Castaneda v. Olsher (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1205, 1213; Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 674.)

I. Duty

The general rule in California is that "[e]veryone is responsible . . . for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person . . . ." (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a).) In other words, "each person has a duty to use ordinary care and 'is liable for injuries caused by his failure to exercise reasonable care in the circumstances . . . .' " (Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co. (1997) 15 Cal.4th 456, 472, quoting Rowland v. Christian, supra, 69 Cal.2d at p. 112 (Rowland).) In the Rowland decision, this court identified several considerations that, when balanced together, may justify a departure from the fundamental principle embodied in Civil Code section 1714: "the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved." (Rowland, at p. 113; accord, e.g., Castaneda v. Olsher, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 1213; John B. v. Superior Court (2006) 38 Cal.4th 1177, 1192; Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 477; Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co., supra, 15 Cal.4th at p. 473.) As we have also explained, however, in the absence of a statutory provision establishing an exception to the general rule of Civil Code section 1714, courts should create one only where "clearly supported by public policy." (Rowland, at p. 112; accord, John B., at p. 1191; Merrill v. Navegar, at p. 477.)*fn2

Before applying the Rowland considerations to the duty question posed here, we note an important feature of the analysis: the Rowland factors are evaluated at a relatively broad level of factual generality. Thus, as to foreseeability, we have explained that the court's task in determining duty "is not to decide whether a particular plaintiff's injury was reasonably foreseeable in light of a particular defendant's conduct, but rather to evaluate more generally whether the category of negligent conduct at issue is sufficiently likely to result in the kind of harm experienced that liability may appropriately be imposed . . . ." (Ballard v. Uribe (1986) 41 Cal.3d 564, 573, fn. 6; accord, Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co., supra, 15 Cal.4th at p. 476; Jackson v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc. (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 1830, 1841.)

In applying the other Rowland factors, as well, we have asked not whether they support an exception to the general duty of reasonable care on the facts of the particular case before us, but whether carving out an entire category of cases from that general duty rule is justified by clear considerations of policy. Thus in Rowland itself, considering whether the traditional property-law categories of invitee, licensee and trespasser should govern a property owner's duty of care, we observed that while in particular cases the certainty of injury, the burden of exercising due care, or the availability and cost of insurance may be greater as to one class of persons entering real property than as to another, such particular instances "do not warrant the wholesale immunities resulting from the common law classifications." (Rowland, supra, 69 Cal.2d at p. 119; see also Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 315-320 [danger of chilling participation in active sports justifies a categorical exception to the duty of ordinary care for participants' careless acts toward coparticipants]; Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co., supra, 15 Cal.4th at pp. 474-475 [societal burden of imposing a duty to guard against fright to a horse when properly using a vehicle or machine justifies not recognizing such a duty]; Castaneda v. Olsher, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 1216-1217 [declining to recognize a landlord's duty not to rent to gang members in light of the burdens that recognizing such a duty would create].)

By making exceptions to Civil Code section 1714's general duty of ordinary care only when foreseeability and policy considerations justify a categorical no-duty rule, we preserve the crucial distinction between a determination that the defendant owed the plaintiff no duty of ordinary care, which is for the court to make, and a determination that the defendant did not breach the duty of ordinary care, which in a jury trial is for the jury to make. We explained the distinction as to foreseeability in Ballard v. Uribe, supra, 41 Cal.3d at page 573, footnote 6: While the court deciding duty assesses the foreseeability of injury from "the category of negligent conduct at issue," if the defendant did owe the plaintiff a duty of ordinary care the jury "may consider the likelihood or foreseeability of injury in determining whether, in fact, the particular defendant's conduct was negligent in the first place." An approach that instead focused the duty inquiry on case-specific facts would tend to "eliminate the role of the jury in negligence cases, transforming the question of whether a defendant breached the duty of care under the facts of a particular case into a legal issue to be decided by the court . . . ." (Lugtu v. California Highway Patrol (2001) 26 Cal.4th 703, 724, fn. 13 [determining the scope of duty of an officer pulling over a vehicle for a moving violation].)

On the facts of a particular case, a trial or appellate court may hold that no reasonable jury could find the defendant failed to act with reasonable prudence under the circumstances. Such a holding is simply to say that as a matter of law the defendant did not breach his or her duty of care, i.e., was not negligent toward the plaintiff under the circumstances shown by the evidence. But the legal decision that an exception to Civil Code section 1714 is warranted, so that the defendant owed no duty to the plaintiff, or owed only a limited duty, is to be made on a more general basis suitable to the formulation of ...


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