Who is liable for collisions with vehicles parked on the shoulder?

We have all seen it: Travelling down the interstate highway, a car or truck pulled over to the side of the road, sometimes in an emergency only designated area, more often not. What happens if a driver travelling on the highway should collide with the vehicle on the side of the road? Who is liable? That was the question before the California Supreme Court in the recent case of Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co.

Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co.

A truck driver working for Ralphs Grocery Company stopped his tractor-trailer rig alongside an interstate highway in order to have a snack. The plaintiff's husband, the decedent, driving his pickup truck home from work, veered suddenly off the freeway and collided at high speed with the rear of the stopped trailer, resulting in his own death. The decedent was not intoxicated at the time; experts opined he either fell asleep at the wheel or lost control due to an undiagnosed medical condition. The jury found both the decedent and the Ralphs driver to have been negligent and to have caused the accident, but allocated 90 percent of the fault to decedent and only 10 percent to the Ralphs driver. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict.

The Supreme Court held that there is no categorical rule exempting those parking alongside freeways from the duty of drivers to exercise ordinary care for others in their use of streets and highways, since a collision with a vehicle leaving the freeway is generally foreseeable, and such an exemption is not clearly supported by public policy. Drivers are supposed to control their vehicles and keep them on the traveled roadway, but common experience shows they do not always do so. Freeway drivers may be intoxicated, distracted, blinded by the weather or the sun, sleepy or sick, and for any of these reasons or others may drive off the roadway. Mechanical problems with their vehicles can also force motorists to suddenly leave the freeway. If they do so at freeway speeds and collide with another vehicle parked alongside the road, they are likely to be injured or injure other occupants of the vehicles, or both.

CalTrans guidance

Published guidance from the California Department of Transportation is to the same effect: An area clear of fixed objects adjacent to the roadway is desirable to provide a recovery zone for vehicles that have left the traveled way. Studies have indicated that on high-speed highways, a clear width of 30 feet from the edge of the traveled way permits about 80 percent of the vehicles leaving the roadway out of control to recover. Therefore, 30 feet should be considered the minimum, traversable clear recovery area for freeways and high-speed expressways.

To be sure, the evidence at trial showed that the truck driver stopped his tractor-trailer at a location where the freeway was bordered with a dirt area, and there was no evidence the spot he chose entailed danger beyond the normal risk posed by parking on the shoulder of a freeway. These circumstances probably played a role in the jury's decision to assign Ralphs only a minimal share of responsibility for the collision, but they do not show a lack of foreseeability for the entire category of negligent conduct at issue.

Anyone who has collided with any vehicle parked along the side of any road or who has been involved in any car accident should seek the advice of an experienced California personal injury attorney to adequately evaluate the circumstances of their case.