Plaintiff’s wrongful death verdict reversed on finding of no legal duty of care for gas eruption due to vehicle collision with defendant’s off-street gas meter assembly

Posted in: Tort Liability by Steven Vartabedian on

Tiffany Gonzalez was driving home from work at the posted speed of 25 MPH one late afternoon when another vehicle apparently attempted to pass her on the right of the single lane of traffic in her direction of travel. The intrusion caused her to veer into the opposite side of the undivided road and lose control. Her vehicle drove over the opposite curb maintaining the same speed and colliding with a block wall and careening into defendant Southern California Gas Company’s gas meter assembly located on private property outside the wall, the assembly being located 11 feet 4 inches from the curb. The force of the collision caused the vehicle to knock one of three concrete-filled steel protective posts onto the assembly, breaking the gas line and causing a fire that enveloped Tiffany’s vehicle. Two days later, Tiffany died of her injuries.

The parents of Tiffany sued the gas company and others for wrongful death in Gonzalez v. Southern California Gas Company (filed December 13, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 17858. This appellate opinion arises from the California Supreme Court granting review of the earlier Court of Appeal opinion that had reversed plaintiff’s judgment against the gas company after jury verdict in the sum of $800,000. ($2 million in damages, fault-apportioned 40% to gas company, 50% to Tiffany and 10% to property owner.) The state
high court transferred the case back to the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, with instructions to reconsider in light of Cabral v. Ralph’s Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764. The Court of Appeal issued this revised opinion, again reversing the trial court judgment.

The appellate court concluded that the gas company owed no legal duty to Tiffany, thus reversing the judgment as a matter of law; this resulted in entry of judgment in favor of the gas company. The jury had found that this defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiffs’ damages; defendant’s motion for JNOV had been denied by the trial court.

The opinion of the Court of Appeal focuses on the “forseeability” factor found under the venerable duty standards cited in Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108. To start, as Rowland sets forth, there is no exception to the general rule of Civil Code section 1714 that a party owes a duty to exercise due care in its actions so as not to create an unreasonable risk of injury “unless clearly supported by public policy.” (Id. at p. 112-113.) “Forseeability of harm” is a major public policy factor. (Ibid.) And as the Gonzalez court points out, it is crucial to distinguish between a determination that the defendant owes no duty of ordinary care, which is for the court to make, and a determination that defendant did not breach that duty, which is for the jury to decide.
As instructed by the Supreme Court, the Gonzalez court discusses that court’s recent Cabral opinion, where the Supreme Court found there was no exception to the general duty-of-care rule where a Ralph’s truck-driver made a non-emergency stop on freeway’s shoulder about 16 feet from the freeway’s nearest lanes and was struck by plaintiff’s vehicle traveling at a high speed. Interestingly, the Gonzalez court finds the Cabral case “inapposite,” a categorization that has arguable merit, except for the fact that this is the very case that caused the Supreme Court to direct it to reconsider its “no duty” ruling, presumably because it bore sufficient similarity to the instant case. The dictionary meaning of “inapposite” is “not apt or pertinent.” Why would the Supreme Court instruct the appellate court to reconsider its previous ruling in light of a case which is not apt or pertinent to the present case?

The Court of Appeal goes to great length to elaborate on the specific facts of the present case that take it outside of the general category of foreseeable events ( including the fact that during the 14 years that this meter assembly was present, there had been no collisions previously), and that any pronouncement of duty would make for bad public policy due to the public and private costs of relocating objects close to roadways and indefiniteness: at what distance from the roadway must a company locate this kind of facility and at what speed of a vehicle should it forsee danger? The court did note the fact that the gas company added the three posts to protect the meter assembly from a 10 MPH or less collision.

While direction from the Supreme Court to reconsider in light of a recent case of the high court does not require a change of disposition, I am concerned that a determination that the recent Cabral case is not apt or pertinent may prompt another grant of review. Another concern I have about these “no duty” cases (and I myself have contributed to the body of no-duty, matter-of-law reversals when I was an appellate justice) is that these appellate rulings tend to take away from the jury the power to make factual findings. What made the parked truck in Cabral dangerous was its size; what arguably made the gas meter assembly dangerous was its volatility when compared with a non-volatile object at the same location. My reading of Gonzalez is that the court essentially says that, under its forseeability analysis of the instant facts, the gas company’s conduct was reasonable enough, which sounds more like a factual issue for the jury to decide.

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