California Supreme Court Reaffirms Duty of Care—Even When Parked


The California Supreme Court recently announced a new ruling that reaffirms the state’s commitment to protecting the rights of the injured-or in this case, the family of the deceased.The case stems from a vehicle accident in which the driver of a tractor-trailer owned by Ralphs Grocery parked along the shoulder of Interstate 10 to have a snack. This shoulder area of the highway was marked as being for emergency parking only, but the driver had regularly stopped at this same spot to eat on previous occasions. This time, though, his truck was hit by a car whose driver, Adelelmo Cabral, had either fallen asleep or been affected by some sort of medical condition that made him swerve into the parked truck. Cabral was killed in the accident and his widow sued Ralphs for wrongful death.Under California law, the relatives of a deceased person (such as a spouse, child, parents, siblings, or even those who are unrelated but dependant on that person) may sue for wrongful death if they can show the person’s death was caused by a wrongful act or negligence on someone else’s part.

Although the jury in the case found that Cabral was 90 percent responsible for the accident and the driver for Ralph’s was only 10 percent responsible for parking where he did, under California’s comparative negligence rules, that still meant Cabral’s widow was entitled to 10 percent of the roughly $4.8 million in damages for economic and non-economic losses in her wrongful death lawsuit-just under half a million dollars.

Ralph’s objected to this award, arguing that a driver parked along the side of the road has no duty of ordinary care to the drivers passing by. This “duty of care” is the notion, enshrined in the California Civil Code, that each person must show, in their daily activities, a reasonable care for the safety of others.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Ralphs, saying that although there are some exceptions to the duty of care, this was not one of them, because the notion that a driver might slam into the truck wasn’t entirely unforeseeable, nor would it be good policy going forward to create such an exception, as it could lead to similar accidents.

This ruling makes it clear that while some juries may find that someone did not breach the duty of care in an accident of this type, no one may argue that they had no so such duty in the first place. Thus the Court reaffirmed the duty we all have as drivers to take care for the safety of others-even when parked alongside the road.

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