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Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Ameron Pole Products LLC

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Yolo

December 26, 2019

UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, Cross-complainant and Appellant,
AMERON POLE PRODUCTS LLC, Cross-defendant and Respondent.

          APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Yolo County, No. CVPM2015500 Thomas E. Warriner, Judge. (Retired judge of the Yolo Super. Ct., assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to art. VI, § 6 of the Cal. Const.) Reversed.

          Pacific Employment Law, Joseph P. Mascovich; Flesher Schaff & Schroeder, Jacob D. Flesher, Jason W. Schaff, and Jeremy J. Schroeder for Cross-complainant and Appellant.

          Adelson McLean, Michael J. Fabrega, and Michael D. McLean for Cross-defendant and Respondent.

          RENNER, J.

         A motorist brought a personal injury action against appellant Union Pacific Railroad Company (Union Pacific) and respondent Ameron Pole Products LLC (Ameron) following a car accident in which she suffered serious injuries. Union Pacific filed a cross-complaint against Ameron for equitable indemnity and apportionment. Ameron moved for summary judgment, arguing the motorist would be unable to prove causation as a matter of law. Union Pacific opposed the motion, arguing that Ameron failed to carry its initial burden of showing entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. In the alternative, Union Pacific argued that evidence submitted in opposition to the motion raised a triable issue as to whether Ameron's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the motorist's injuries. The trial court granted the motion and entered judgment in Ameron's favor. We reverse.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In September 2014, Katie was rear-ended on Interstate 80 by an SUV driven by Brian, a Union Pacific employee.[1] Katie lost control of her car, which spun off the freeway and onto the dirt shoulder, where it struck a roadside light pole. The light pole, which was manufactured by Ameron, was designed to “break away” on impact, causing the pole to pass over the impacting vehicle, thereby reducing the force of the collision and concomitant risk of injury. On this occasion, however, the light pole did not break away, but instead remained standing. Katie sustained multiple injuries, including skull fractures, injuries to her brain and face, a fracture of the right scapula, and bilateral chest trauma.

         Katie commenced the instant action in Yolo County Superior Court on April 7, 2015. The case was removed to federal court, where Katie filed the operative second amended complaint. The second amended complaint asserts a single cause of action for negligence against Union Pacific and Brian, Ameron, and Pacific Excavation, Inc. (together, defendants).[2] The second amended complaint alleges that Brian, in the course and scope of his employment with Union Pacific, “merged to the left and struck [Katie], thereby causing injury and damages to [Katie].” The second amended complaint further alleges that Ameron “made the pole and constructed the faulty slip base, ” was “responsible, in whole or in part[, ] for the design, engineering, and/or installation of the roadway lighting system, ” and “acted negligently or in strict liability as a supplier in the chain of commercial supply in the installation of the subject light pole leading to and causing the injuries alleged by [Katie].” The second amended complaint seeks economic and noneconomic damages according to proof.

         Union Pacific and Ameron separately answered the second amended complaint and denied liability. Around the same time, the case was returned to Yolo County Superior Court, where various cross-complaints were filed. As relevant here, Union Pacific cross-complained for equitable indemnity and apportionment of fault against Ameron and Pacific Excavation. Pacific Excavation, for its part, cross-complained for equitable indemnity and apportionment against Union Pacific, Brian, and Ameron.

         Following discovery, Ameron moved for summary judgment on the second amended complaint and cross-complaints on the sole ground that Katie could not establish causation. Relying on discovery responses in which Katie averred that Brian “caused the accident” by hitting her car, Ameron argued the accident would have occurred whether or not the light pole was defective or negligently installed, and therefore, causation could not be established as a matter of law. In the alternative, Ameron argued that Katie's responses to certain contention interrogatories were “factually devoid” and shifted the burden to Katie to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of material fact.

         Union Pacific-and only Union Pacific-opposed the motion. Union Pacific argued that Ameron failed to make an affirmative showing that causation could not be established, and could not rely on Katie's “factually devoid” discovery responses to shift the burden of production to Union Pacific. Union Pacific also submitted an expert declaration from Dean C. Alberson, a registered professional engineer with experience in testing and evaluating highway safety features.[3]

         Alberson explained that Ameron's light pole was manufactured with a breakaway slip base, a safety feature generally used in urban areas where vehicle speeds are moderate to high. Breakaway slip base systems connect upper and lower parts of light poles by means of slip plates. When properly installed, the force from an errant vehicle causes the top slip plate to disengage from the bottom slip plate, causing the pole to break away and fly over the vehicle. For the breakaway slip base to function correctly, however, the top of the bottom slip plate must be within four inches of the ground line.

         Alberson averred that he had inspected the accident scene and determined that the light pole had been mounted on sloping ground.[4] Alberson opined that the slip base had not been installed in conformance with the standards set forth in the Roadside Design Guide published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and likely failed for that reason. Alberson further opined that, as a manufacturer of light poles with breakaway slip bases, Ameron should have warned customers, on the pole bases themselves, that failure to install the slip base within four inches of the ground line could interfere with the proper functioning of the breakaway safety feature.

         Ameron filed a reply brief, arguing that any negligence in the design or manufacture of the light pole was “legally irrelevant” for purposes of the summary judgment motion. Ameron also submitted numerous objections to the declarations of Union Pacific's experts.

         Following a hearing, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, stating that Union Pacific “failed to present admissible evidence that defendant Ameron was a substantial factor in causing [Katie's] injuries.” The ...

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