Court of Appeal Holds Truck Driver Not Liable for Unforeseen Roadrage under the Sudden Emergency Doctrine

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The sudden emergency doctrine, also known as the imminent peril doctrine, provides a complete defense when a non-negligent actor is presented with a sudden and unexpected emergency. For the doctrine to apply, the defendant must not cause the emergency, and must act as a reasonably careful person would in similar circumstances.

Shiver v. Laramee, et al. (2018) Cal. App. LEXIS 535 is the first California case to hold that “roadrage” may qualify as an emergency under this doctrine. Also novel is that the Trial Court in Shiver used this doctrine to dispose of the case at summary judgment. Previous case law had been contrary, holding that whether this doctrine applies is a question of fact for the jury to decide. (Damele v. Mack Trucks (1990) 219 Cal. App. 3d 29, 37.)

In Shiver, Defendant truck driver Charles Laramee was driving southbound on the freeway in the far-right lane (the #3 lane). Ahead of Laramee, three vehicles used a southbound on-ramp to enter the freeway. The first was a black vehicle with an unknown driver. The second vehicle was driven by Michelle Adams. The third vehicle was driven by Plaintiff Joshua Shiver. Prior to entering the on-ramp, the black vehicle had been tailgating Adams and driving recklessly behind her as she approached the on-ramp. When Adams entered the on-ramp, the black vehicle passed Adams while giving her an obscene gesture, and moved out of the on-ramp and into the #3 lane. Adams then merged from the on-ramp into the #3 lane directly behind the black vehicle. The black vehicle suddenly braked causing Adams to also brake. Shiver, who was driving directly in front of Laramee and behind Adams, also had to brake to avoid a collision. While he noticed that the vehicles ahead of him were stopping, Laramee was unable to stop before the front of his truck struck the rear of Shiver’s vehicle. This impact caused Shiver’s vehicle to move forward and strike Adam’s vehicle. Shiver filed suit against Laramee and his employer following the accident.

The Trial Court disposed of Shiver’s suit at summary judgment. The Trial Court found: (1) that the sudden braking by the unidentified black vehicle, for no apparent reason, followed by the immediate braking by Adams and Shiver, created a sudden and unexpected emergency; (2) that the actions of the three vehicles ahead of Laramee presented an unanticipated situation since vehicles merging onto a freeway normally increase their speed of travel instead of stopping suddenly; (3) that the emergency was solely the result of the black vehicle’s sudden and unexpected decision to slam on its brakes, in an act of apparent road rage; and (4) that Laramee, by sounding his horn and forcefully applying his brakes, acted as a reasonably careful person would have acted under similar circumstances. Accordingly, the Trial Court found that Shiver’s negligence claim is barred by the sudden emergency doctrine.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the Trial Court’s ruling. This was in spite of Shiver’s claim that summary judgment was unjustified since a jury could conclude that Laramee did not act as a reasonably careful person would have under similar circumstances. Shiver made four arguments to support this claim, and the Court of Appeal disposed of each in turn.

First, Shiver argued that Laramee’s failure to slow down after witnessing the road rage incident fell below the industry standard of care. The Court disposed of this argument, binding Shiver to his deposition testimony stating that Laramee had in fact slowed down.

Second, Shiver argued that a reasonable jury could conclude that Laramee was negligent in failing to leave a proper space cushion between his truck and Shiver’s car. The Court found that the evidence did not support this assertion. This was because Laramee was not “tailgating” in violation of Vehicle Code section 21703. Also, under Vehicle Code section 21804(a) Laramee could expect Shiver, as a vehicle entering the freeway to yield the right of way to traffic on the freeway.

Third, Shiver argued that Laramee’s failure to yield to the cars merging in front of him and to maintain a safe space cushion fell below the industry standard of care. In support of this, Shiver relied upon expert testimony that Laramee failed to comply with the trucking industry standard of care by failing to reduce his speed and/or change lanes to the left as he approached the on-ramp. The Court concluded that this was not enough to raise a triable question of fact sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment because Shiver testified that Laramee did slow down and yielded. Shiver also testified that a car was in the lane to the left of Laramee, thus prohibiting Laramee from safely merging into the left lane.

Fourth, Shiver argued that Laramee’s actions were not those of a prudent driver because he was likely distracted by a cell phone conversation. During Laramee’s deposition, Shiver’s counsel asked, “When you got onto the southbound 101, were you on your cell phone?” Laramee replied that he was not on his cell phone. He had a wireless Bluetooth “hands-free” phone in his cab, as permitted under the Vehicle Code. Shiver’s counsel asked, “Were are [sic] you talking” on the “hands-free?” Laramee replied, “Yeah, I was talking.” Laramee’s counsel interrupted, “Were you actually actively in a call when you got on the freeway, or do you remember?” Laramee replied that he did not remember. The Court concluded that this did not raise a sufficient question as to whether a hands-free phone conversation so distracted Laramee that he did not act as a reasonably careful person.

With none of Shiver’s arguments raising a sufficient question of fact to defeat the motion for summary judgment, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the Trial Court’s application of the sudden emergency doctrine.

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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