>> Big Rig Tractor Trailer Accident Injuries

Heightened Standards According To The Law

Drivers of big rigs and trucks have a duty of extreme caution. 49 Code of Federal Regulations 392.14. This is not only under the application of the general principles of negligence (Cal. Civil Code § 1714), but a federal law called the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act. In Weaver v. Chavez, 133 Cal.App.4th 1350, a commercial truck driver injured another driver, and the trial court gave an ordinary negligence instruction. The Court of Appeal held that it was an error to do so and that the jury should have been instructed as to the heightened standard of care set forth by 49 CFR 392.14. The Court held that it made a difference to the outcome:

Comparing the basic speed law instruction utilized by the court with the federal regulation proposed by appellants, each requires the operator of a vehicle to consider inclement weather and additional hazards which may result from operation of a vehicle under such conditions. Each suggests that the operator must increase his or her diligence in how the vehicle is operated. But the standard of diligence in each is different. The basic speed law requires only that a driver shall not drive at a speed “greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather. . . .” (Veh. Code, § 22350, italics added.) The federal standard requires the driver of a commercial vehicle to use “extreme caution” and to reduce speed when hazardous conditions exist. ( 49 C.F.R. § 392.14 (2005).)

(4) Respondents contend that the phrasing of the last clause of the basic speed law, “and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property” (Veh. Code, § 22350), brings the standard to the same level as the federal standard. But that particular phrase must be construed in context of the instruction as a whole, which told the jury to measure the actions of Chavez in accord with the actions of a reasonable and prudent person. A reasonable person standard is not consonant with a standard of extreme care.

Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (1990) page 1265, defines “reasonable care” as “[t]hat degree of care which a person of ordinary prudence would exercise in the same or similar circumstances. [Citation.]” (Italics added.) The same source does not define the phrase “extreme care,” but it does define the word “extreme” in the appropriate context as “[g]reatest, highest, strongest, or the like.” ( Id. at p. 588.)

The distinction is also recognized within the recent California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) adopted by the Judicial Council. CACI No. 401 states that “Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or to others.” In contrast, CACI No. 414 provides an alternative standard where dangerous activities or items are involved: “People must be extremely careful when they deal with dangerous items or participate in dangerous activities. . . . The risk of harm is so great that the failure to use extreme caution is negligence.” (Italics added.)

The use note to CACI No. 414 cites to the case of Borenkraut v. Whitten (1961) 56 Cal.2d 538 [ 15 Cal.Rptr. 635, 364 P.2d 467]. There, plaintiff was injured when an explosion occurred while attendants at a gas station poured gasoline into a carburetor in an attempt to start a stalled car. Defendants prevailed in the trial court and on appeal plaintiff objected that the trial court had failed to instruct the jury on the heightened standard of “extreme caution.” The Supreme Court agreed it was error for the trial court not to so instruct the jury: “Thus, the refused instruction correctly stated the law as applied to the undisputed facts of this case. The claim of defendants that the general instruction offered by them . . . was sufficient for this purpose, is not sound. The language of the instruction given is general, and plaintiff was entitled to have the jury instructed specifically on her theory of the case. [Citation.] She should not have been required to rest upon generalities, but was entitled to have the jury instructed in terms that related the degree of care to the circumstances peculiar to the case being tried [citation]. Since plaintiff’s case was tried upon this very theory of the distinction between the quantum of care required in ordinary circumstances, and that required of persons handling materials inherently dangerous to human life, it was error to refuse the requested instruction.” ( Id. at pp. 545-546.)

Weaver v. Chavez, 133 Cal.App.4th 1350, 1355-56 (Cal. Ct. App. 2005)

The Take Away

Big rig truck operators and their employers are responsible for dangerous vehicles. The courts set a high bar expecting extreme caution when driving tractor-trailers and other large similar transport vehicles. 

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