We recently completed a very difficult single-vehicle collision case way up in Del Norte County, the northernmost county in California, and obtained what appears to be the largest reported result in a wrongful death or personal injury case in that very conservative jurisdiction.
The case involved two students at Humboldt State who were traveling northbound on Interstate 101, near the Redwood National and State Parks, on their way to Seattle for spring break. The day of the crash was extremely stormy, with lots of rain and high winds. As they were coming down a long, straight downhill stretch, the students suddenly encountered an alder tree, which had fallen on to the highway and was blocking part of their lane. The driver swerved to the right to avoid the tree, at which point his car lost control, slid off the road and struck a tree along the shoulder.
The driver was killed instantly. The front seat passenger, his girlfriend, suffered a traumatic brain injury and was hospitalized for about a month. She received very little treatment after being released from the hospital, but continued to suffer from problems such as difficulty concentrating, memory loss, poor judgment and lack of inhibition.
Our initial investigation focused on the fallen tree. It had come from a group of alders, all of which were leaning towards the highway. In this area, alder trees are surrounded by much taller redwoods and tend to grow out towards the highway in order to get access to the light. The tree maintenance supervisor for defendant CalTrans, which maintains Highway 101, admitted in deposition that the group of alders in question was leaning to a degree that made the trees candidates for removal. But CalTrans argued that there are lots of trees with similar amounts of lean and that there are limits on CalTrans’ ability to keep up the maintenance of these trees while preserving the natural beauty of the area.
Proving tire store liability
As the case proceeded, our focus shifted to the rear tires on the decedent’s car, which were nearly bald. CalTrans would argue that the bald tires, along with the heavy storm conditions, were the real reasons why the tree fell and why the car lost control on the wet road. Further investigation revealed that the decedent had brought his car into a local Mom and Pop tire store about five months before the crash. The store had replaced two of his existing tires. There was no indication on the invoice that the store had recommended replacement of the other tires, which had to have already been in poor shape at the time.
The fundamental problem, however, was that the tire store (which we named as a defendant) had placed the new tires on the front of the car and left the old, worn ones on the back. As we wrote about in a 2018 newsletter, this violates a fundamental rule to which all major players in the tire industry now subscribe – when replacing two tires, always put the new ones on the back. Many studies have shown that hydroplaning in wet weather is much less likely if the tires with the most tread are on the back. That’s because it is much easier for a driver to maintain control if the front tires (rather than the rear) lose traction with the road.
Despite this industry standard, the owner of the defendant tire store testified in deposition that his own practice involves examining the tread pattern of the tires, looking at whether the car is front-wheel or rear-wheel drive and then making an “educated” assessment of where the two new tires should go in order to preserve the life of the tires. The problem is that this approach focuses on saving the customer money, rather than on safety.
Questions remained as to causation vis-a-vis the placement of the tires (i.e., would the driver have been able to regain control of his car with good tires on the rear), but shortly after the owner’s deposition, his insurance carrier accepted our $3 million policy limits settlement demand.
Proving governmental liability
The focus now shifted back to the tree. CalTrans insisted that it was immune from liability under Government Code section 831 (the so-called weather immunity) and offered a waiver of costs in settlement shortly before filing a motion for summary judgment. We convinced the judge that the immunity did not apply because the weather conditions were not the sole cause of the tree falling. Our tree expert opined that the leaning alder trees were considered “likely” to fall under applicable forestry standards because of the degree of lean. It was the combination of the leaning trees (a dangerous condition of public property) and the weather that caused the subject tree to fall. The judge denied the summary judgment motion.
Another complicating factor was that the driver was found to have a significant amount of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) in his system. As we wrote about in another 2018 newsletter, California law does not set forth a per se level of THC at which it is presumed that a driver is under the influence, and there is a strong argument that a THC level should not be admitted in an auto accident case without corroborating evidence that the driver was under the influence. However, there was a real risk that the trial judge would allow this evidence to come in at trial.
We ultimately reached a settlement with CalTrans in the amount of $999,999, for a total recovery of just under $4 million for the case as a whole. This amount was evenly split between the wrongful death claim brought by the driver’s parents and the personal injury claim brought by the driver’s girlfriend. Given the challenges in establishing liability, the fact that there was less than $1 million in total economic damages for both sets of plaintiffs and the exceedingly conservative jurisdiction where the case was venued, we are very pleased with the result.