Weekly Law Resume - February 22, 2013: California Highway Patrol Has No Duty to Come to Aid of an Injured Party Absent a “Special Relationship”

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Department of the California Highway Patrol
California Court of Appeal – Fifth District (February 14, 2013)

In general, absent a “special relationship”, a person who has not created a peril has no duty to come to the aid of another. This general rule applies equally to individuals as it does public entities, such as the California Highway Patrol (“CHP”). This case considered the applicability of this general rule where it was claimed that the CHP was negligent in the manner in which its operators responded to a 911 call.

The present case arose out of a collision of a Greyhound Lines, Inc. (“Greyhound”) bus with an already overturned sports utility vehicle (“SUV”) that was blocking one or more lanes of highway 99 near Fresno, California. In the early morning, the SUV struck the center divider, leaving the vehicle on its side and blocking lanes of traffic. A truck driver reported this accident to a CHP 911 operator, who then inputted some of the information provided but failed to include that the disabled SUV was blocking traffic lanes. Minutes later, the Greyhound bus collided with the SUV. The collision between the bus and the SUV resulted in the deaths of three bus passengers and three occupants of the SUV.

As a result of this collision, Greyhound was sued for damages based on its negligence. Greyhound, in turn, cross-complained against various cross-defendants, including the CHP. Greyhound alleged that the CHP was negligent because the CHP 911 operator, who was informed of the already overturned SUV, negligently failed to enter the code for lane blockage. Greyhound further asserted that this omission was the proximate cause of the bus collision because it resulted in an unreasonable delay in the CHP’s response to the emergency. The CHP demurred and the trial court sustained its demurrer without leave to amend. Greyhound appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the CHP owed a duty of care to the bus passengers based on the 911 operator’s assurances to the 911 callers that the CHP was on its way.

The Court of Appeal rejected Greyhound’s argument, noting first that the general rule regarding the duty, or lack thereof, to come to the aid of another applies to law enforcement officials including the CHP. The Court, stating that the general rule should be construed narrowly rather than broadly, found that Greyhound’s argument was an unwarranted expansion of the rule. No “special relationship” exists merely because the CHP was called. Rather, such a special relationship would only arise if the CHP “made misrepresentations that induced a citizen’s detrimental reliance, placed a citizen in harm’s way, or lulled a citizen into a false sense of security and then withdrew essential safety precautions.”

According to the Court, assuming any “nonfeasance” occurred by the operators by not noting the lane closing, this failure to input the lane blockage code left the bus passengers in exactly the same position they were already in. The CHP did not induce the bus passengers to rely on the CHP to their detriment, place the bus passengers in peril, or increase their risk of harm. As such, there was no special relationship, and thus, the CHP owed no duty.

Additionally, the Court found Greyhound’s claim that 911 callers would have stopped and provided aid to the disabled SUV had the CHP 911 operators not provided assurances that CHP was on its way to be “replete with speculation and conjecture.” The Court also noted that the 911 calls reporting the initial accident and the second accident with the bus were about three minutes apart. The Court noted that to accept Greyhound’s speculative argument would make the CHP “virtually an insurer of safety on the highway, instead of an enforcer of the vehicle code.”

The judgment was affirmed.

COMMENT

The Greyhound decision affirms the general rule that absent a “special relationship,” there is no duty to come to an aid of another. The rule applies to law enforcement officials such as the CHP. Furthermore, in order to establish a “special relationship,” which would give rise to a duty of care, there must be actual induced detrimental reliance or an actual increase in the risk of harm, not merely a speculative situation.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/F063590.PDF

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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