California Appellate Court Imposes Federal Standard of "Extreme Care" Upon Commercial Vehicles Operating in Hazardous Conditions

In the recent case of Weaver v. Chavez, 133 Cal. App. 4th 1350, the Second Appellate District of California found that a Plaintiff alleging personal injuries as a result of an accident with a commercial vehicle traveling in hazardous weather conditions was entitled to a jury instruction requiring "extreme care" on the commercial driver's part, rather than merely "reasonable prudence" as is generally used in California's jury instructions.

This ruling will likely result in Plaintiffs' attorneys routinely requesting an instruction to the jury, following 49 Code of Federal Regulation part 392.14, as follows: "Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility, or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist."

The Court found that where federal regulation imposes a higher standard of care than that of state law, the federal regulation must be complied with.

The Plaintiff in the Weaver case was operating her Toyota Avalon in the number four lane of the 210 Freeway in heavy traffic and rain. Through no fault of the commercial vehicle driver, Plaintiff's vehicle was hit by another car and spun out of control, coming to a stop in the number three lane ahead of the commercial tractor-trailer. The commercial driver engaged his brakes and began to jackknife. He was able to straighten out the tractor-trailer, but struck the Plaintiff's car, resulting in her alleged injuries. The commercial driver testified at trial that he was traveling 56 miles per hour before the accident.

In the ensuing action against the owner and driver of the commercial vehicle, the Court denied Plaintiff's request for a jury instruction based upon the Federal standard of care of "extreme caution." However, the appellate court in review likened the condition of poor weather conditions to situations where dangerous activities or items are involved, and found that the trial court erred in denying the request that the jury be instructed that "extreme caution" should have been used by the commercial vehicle driver. The jury's verdict in favor of the commercial owner and driver was reversed and remanded for new trial.

This case presents a significantly revised standard of care upon the operation of commercial vehicles in hazardous conditions. Whether such a standard will be adopted universally in California may well be the subject of additional litigation. Trucking companies in particular should be aware of this new development in civil law as they formulate their strategic response to personal injury claims.