This case presents an interesting and unusual situation where the driver of a fully-loaded big rig, who was possibly using his cell phone, rear-ended another vehicle and not only escaped liability, but did so by winning a summary judgment motion despite plaintiff submitting an expert declaration stating that the rig driver had been negligent. This unusual result arises primarily from application of the sudden emergency doctrine, aka the imminent peril doctrine (see CACI 452), which protects a defendant against negligence liability when the defendant responds reasonably to an emergency situation not of his or her own creation, but also arises partially from rules requiring an expert declaration to have an adequate factual basis and prohibiting speculation.
Laramee was driving his rig in the outside or slow lane of the freeway and was approaching an onramp. He had a wireless Bluetooth hands-free phone which he may have been using at the time (in deposition he initially said he was talking, then later said he could not remember). Another car was in the lane to Laramee’s left, immediately adjacent to his rig. Three vehicles were on the onramp and approaching the freeway. One was driven by Adams; another was a black car driven by an unknown driver; and plaintiff/appellant Shiver was the third in line coming up the onramp. The black vehicle moved from its position behind Adams on the onramp into the lane ahead of Laramee, passed Adams and gave her an obscene gesture before Adams’ car merged onto the freeway. Laramee slowed his rig 15-20% when the black car passed Adams. Shiver continued behind Adams and was about two car lengths ahead of Laramee when he began merging onto the freeway.
Suddenly the black car braked and Adams was forced to brake – Adams would have hit the black car had she not braked. Shiver was also forced to brake. Laramee applied his brakes and sounded his horn but was not able to stop before hitting Shiver’s car.
Laramee moved for summary judgment on the basis of the sudden emergency doctrine aka the imminent peril doctrine. As set forth in CACI 452, a defendant is not negligent if he proves there was a sudden or unexpected emergency threatening danger of immediate injury, the defendant did not cause the emergency, and the defendant “acted as a reasonably careful person would have acted in similar circumstances, even if it appears later that a different course of action would have been safer.” Shiver opposed the motion, claiming there were triable issues of material fact as to whether the emergency situation was sudden and unexpected (because Laramee saw the situation unfolding three tenths of a mile in advance and because there was a question of fact as to how long Laramee had to react to the braking). The trial court and the Court of Appeal both found the sole cause of the accident was the sudden and unexpected braking of the black car, noting that normally vehicles merging onto a freeway increase their speed to that of the flow of traffic instead of stopping suddenly. Further, the trial court and the Court of Appeal both found there was no triable question of fact regarding whether Laramee had caused the emergency: “The sole cause of the emergency was the sudden and unexpected braking of the black car. But for its braking, an emergency would not have arisen and [Shiver] would have safely merged in front of Laramee’s truck.”
As to whether Laramee acted reasonably, the court noted Vehicle Code section 21703 prohibits following another car too closely, but that Laramee was not following Shiver – Shiver was merging from an onramp. Further, Vehicle Code section 21804 required Shiver to yield until he could proceed with reasonable safety. Thus, Laramee could reasonably have expected Shiver to yield to his rig. While Shiver’s expert submitted a declaration stating that Laramee should have slowed or moved to the left, that opinion was disregarded because it failed to recognize or deal with the evidence that Laramee had slowed down and there was another car to Laramee’s left. As to the evidence that Laramee may have been on a hands-free cell phone call, the court concluded that even if he had been, it was “speculative whether the distraction from the phone conversation interfered with his ability to safely drive” his rig.
What a jury may or may not do with a given set of facts is not always clear. Historically, many courts have denied or overturned summary judgments in order to grant the widest possible latitude to a jury to decide factual issues. Here, the trial court could easily have taken the “safe” route and found a jury question existed as to whether Laramee slowed enough and denied his motion. This case demonstrates a growing and long-term trend toward courts granting summary judgment and adjudication motions despite the theoretical existence of triable issues of fact when the “right” result seems apparent, thereby reducing the latitude of a jury to decide issues – and of appellate courts affirming those decisions!
This case also serves as a rare and successful example of application of the sudden emergency/imminent peril doctrine (expect to see this doctrine invoked more frequently in the future). It is also a reminder that an expert’s opinion must take into account facts which appear to contradict or undermine the opinion and explain why it remains valid despite those facts, and that even facts potentially showing contributing causes (Laramee might have been on the phone and thus might have been distracted) must be supported by evidence that the purported contributing cause actually had an effect on the outcome or it will be disregarded as speculation.
For a copy of the complete decision, see: Shiver v Laramee