Key Decisions

June 2013 – Commercial Vendor Owed A Duty of Care

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | June 21, 2013)

Commercial Vendor Owed A Duty of Care

Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed May 15, 2013

KEY FACTS

Jeremy White picked up dirt bikes from Bert’s Mega Mall, a motorsports dealership operated by defendants Seidner Enterprises LLC and RJS Financial. Bert’s employees had loaded and strapped down the bikes in the bed of White’s truck. At the time, White had “quite high” levels of marijuana in his blood.

As White drove at 74 miles-per-hour on a bumpy part of the freeway, he felt and saw the bikes “hopping around a little bit in the bed of the truck.” The bikes moved from side to side, as well as back and forth. White then heard a popping sound. He asked his passenger to look behind him at the truck’s bed. Then, without braking, White took his eyes off the road to glance back over his left shoulder, and then his right. As he did, White steered his truck slightly to the right, and into a vehicle parked on the side of the freeway.

The vehicle exploded in a fireball, killing its sole occupant, Parra. A police officer was standing nearby when the accident happened. The impact threw Police Officer Pedeferri 78 feet from where he was standing, paralyzing him from the armpits down.

Officer Pedeferri, his wife, and Parra’s mother and father sued White for negligence and wrongful death. They later added Bert’s as a defendant on the theory that Bert’s employees’ failure to secure the bikes had distracted White and caused the accident.

The jury awarded the plaintiffs $49.6 million, and found Bert’s to be 33% at fault.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal held Bert’s owed the plaintiffs a duty to carefully load and secure the bikes in a way that would not distract the driver.

Bert’s could be deemed negligent for improperly loading and securing the dirt bikes in the back of White’s truck. However, to be liable to a particular plaintiff, Bert’s must owe that plaintiff a duty to act carefully. Whether a duty is owed is ultimately a question of policy.

After considering the various policy issues, the court declined to create an exemption for commercial vendors such as Bert’s.

The court next rejected Bert’s argument that it could not be liable because it did not have a “special relationship” with the plaintiffs. The court noted that the cases on which Bert’s relied involved nonfeasance, not malfeasance. Because Bert’s had undertaken to secure the bikes, its liability was based on malfeasance, not nonfeasance.

In addition, the court rejected Bert’s argument that White’s negligence and marijuana use were superseding causes of the accident. It was foreseeable that a driver might be impaired and, if so, as negligently securing cargo could foreseeably lead to an accident.

However, the court ruled that the trial court had erred in admitting certain evidence relating to White’s impairment from marijuana use. Based on this error, the court vacated the judgment and remanded.

ANALYSIS

This was obviously a high stakes case with some interesting legal issues. Drawing the line on duty remains a difficult challenge in many different factual scenarios.