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Wood v. Crst Expedited, Inc.

Supreme Court of Wyoming

June 8, 2018

MISTY WOOD, a/k/a MISTY WOOD CRASHLEY, as the Wrongful Death Personal Representative of the Estate of David L. Crashley, Appellant (Plaintiff),
v.
CRST EXPEDITED, INC., an Iowa Corporation, JARED CHAVEZ and LUIS FONTANEZ-BERMUDEZ, individually, Appellees (Defendants).

          Appeal from the District Court of Carbon County The Honorable Wade E. Waldrip, Judge.

          Representing Appellant: Larry B. Jones and Lindsey T. Krause of Simpson, Kepler & Edwards, LLC, the Cody, Wyoming division of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh and Jardine, P.C., Cody, Wyoming. Argument by Ms. Krause.

          Representing Appellees: Khale J. Lenhart and Amanda M. Good of Hirst Applegate, LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Lenhart.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, [*] DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          BURKE, Chief Justice.

         [¶1] Misty Wood, on behalf of the Estate of David L. Crashley (the decedent), brought a wrongful death action against CRST Expedited, Inc. (CRST), a commercial trucking company, and two of its drivers. Ms. Wood alleged the drivers illegally and negligently parked a CRST semi tractor-trailer in an I-80 emergency lane and caused the decedent's death when the vehicle he was driving collided with the tractor-trailer. The district court found that parking the tractor-trailer in the emergency lane was not, based on the undisputed facts, a proximate cause of the accident, and entered summary judgment in favor of Appellees. We reverse.

         ISSUE

         [¶2] Ms. Wood presents a single issue on appeal, which we rephrase as:

Were there disputed issues of material fact that precluded the district court's entry of summary judgment?

         FACTS

         [¶3] At around midnight on the night of February 10, 2014, Jared Chavez and Luis Fontanez-Bermudez, two CRST drivers, set out from Salt Lake City, Utah, driving a CRST tractor-trailer eastbound on I-80. Mr. Chavez took the first driving shift while Mr. Fontanez-Bermudez slept in the sleeper berth. At around 6:45 a.m., on February 11th, approximately one mile west of Rawlins, Mr. Chavez pulled over, parked the tractor-trailer in the emergency lane, turned on the tractor-trailer's hazard lights, and informed Mr. Fontanez-Bermudez that he felt drowsy and wanted to change drivers. Mr. Chavez parked the tractor-trailer such that portions of the rig were within ten inches of the eastbound lanes of I-80. The location where Mr. Chavez parked the tractor-trailer was 1.05 miles past an off ramp leading to a truck stop, and .85 miles from the next highway exit. Multiple signs leading up to the location where Mr. Chavez pulled over indicated that parking was not allowed except for "emergency" purposes.

         [¶4] Within minutes after Mr. Chavez stopped the tractor-trailer, the decedent, driving a Mazda CX-9 at or near highway speeds, collided with the rear of the tractor-trailer. The speed limit on that portion of the highway was 75 m.p.h. It appears to be undisputed that the tractor-trailer was parked completely within the emergency lane at the time of the collision.[1]

         [¶5] At the time of the accident, the weather was clear, the road was dry, and it was dawn, with the sun still below the horizon. There were no signs that the decedent braked or attempted to avoid the collision, and it is not known why the decedent failed to maintain his proper lane of travel. The decedent suffered immediately fatal injuries, and Mr. Chavez was cited for illegally parking in an emergency lane.

         [¶6] On January 26, 2016, Ms. Wood filed a wrongful death complaint against CRST, Mr. Chavez, and Mr. Fontanez-Bermudez, followed by an amended complaint on February 4, 2016. Ms. Wood alleged that Mr. Chavez and Mr. Fontanez-Bermudez were negligent in their illegal parking of the CRST tractor-trailer in the I-80 emergency lane. She further alleged that CRST was negligent in its training and supervision of its drivers and was also vicariously liable for the drivers' negligence. Appellees filed timely answers to the amended complaint.

         [¶7] On November 17, 2016, Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment. Appellees asserted they were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because Mr. Chavez's act of parking in the emergency lane, even if illegal, was not the proximate cause of the decedent's accident. On January 11, 2017, Ms. Wood filed her opposition to Appellees' summary judgment motion. After a hearing, the district court granted the motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         [¶8] We apply the following standard of review to a district court's summary judgment decision:

Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. W.R.C.P. 56(c); Metz Beverage Co. v. Wyoming Beverages, Inc., 2002 WY 21, ¶ 9, 39 P.3d 1051, 1055 (Wyo. 2002). "A genuine issue of material fact exists when a disputed fact, if it were proven, would establish or refute an essential element of a cause of action or a defense that the parties have asserted." Id. Because summary judgment involves a purely legal determination, we undertake de novo review of a trial court's summary judgment decision. Glenn v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 2008 WY 16, ¶ 6, 176 P.3d 640, 642 (Wyo. 2008).

Fugle v. Sublette Cty. Sch. Dist. No. 9, 2015 WY 98, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 732, 734 (Wyo. 2015). We consider the record from a viewpoint most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, giving that party all favorable inferences that can be drawn reasonably from the facts set forth in the affidavits, depositions, and other material properly appearing in the record. Id.

         DISCUSSION

         [¶9] The issue of proximate cause is generally one to be decided by the jury, and resolution of that issue depends on the foreseeability of the risk presented by the actor's conduct. Endresen v. Allen, 574 P.2d 1219, 1222 (Wyo. 1978) ("[W]hat is reasonably to be foreseen is generally a question for the jury."). According to one respected commentator:

The central goal of the proximate cause requirement is to limit the defendant's liability to the kinds of harms he risked by his negligent conduct. Judicial decisions about proximate cause rules thus attempt to discern whether, in the particular case before the court, the harm that resulted from the defendant's negligence is so clearly outside the risks he created that it would be unjust or at least impractical to impose liability.
The most general and pervasive approach to proximate cause holds that a negligent defendant is liable for all the general kinds of harms he foreseeably risked by his negligent conduct and to the class of persons he put at risk by that conduct. Conversely, he is not a proximate cause of, and not liable for injuries that were unforeseeable. This does not mean that the defendant must be the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury. On the contrary, several wrongdoers are frequently proximate causes of harm.

Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts § 180, at 443-44 (2000) (footnote omitted).[2]

         [¶10] In order to evaluate whether there is a factual issue regarding proximate cause in this case, it is essential that we understand the proper causal connection that must be established. The parties offer differing perspectives on that issue. Appellant contends that the proper test of proximate cause involves an analysis of the relationship between the conduct of Mr. Chavez in illegally parking on the shoulder of the highway and the injuries suffered by the decedent. "The focus of the analysis is whether 'reasonable minds' can reach different conclusions regarding the proximate cause of [the decedent's] death." Appellees contend that Appellant must establish that the act of parking on the shoulder caused the decedent to lose control of his vehicle. According to Appellees: "[P]arking on the side of the road would not, in ordinary experience, be expected to cause someone to leave the lanes of travel. As such, parking on the side of the road cannot be a cause of this accident."[3] The district court applied the standard proposed by Appellees and set forth the basis for its decision in the order granting summary judgment:

Defendant[s'] parking at that spot and time, whether or not it was legal, simply did not cause this accident. Nothing about parking in the emergency lane caused [the decedent] to drive into the back of the trailer. While it greatly aggravated the consequences of [the decedent's] conduct, Defendants' unlawful stop in the emergency lane did not cause [the decedent] to leave the lanes of travel in his vehicle and drive in the emergency lane.

         For reasons that we explain below, we must conclude that the district court did not apply the proper standard. Appellant is not required to prove that parking on the shoulder of the highway caused the decedent to lose control of his vehicle. Rather, he must prove that parking on the shoulder of the road was a proximate cause of his injuries. "[T]he ultimate test of proximate cause is foreseeability of injury. In order to qualify as a legal cause, the conduct must be a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff's injuries." Lucero v. Holbrook, 2012 WY 152, ¶ 17, 288 P.3d 1228, 1234 (Wyo. 2012) (emphasis added).

         [¶11] This is a negligence case. Negligence consists of a duty on the part of the defendant and a violation of the duty which proximately causes injury to the plaintiff. ABC Builders, Inc. v. Phillips, 632 P.2d 925, 931 (Wyo. 1981). Stated in terms of the allegations in this case, the questions that must be answered are: Did Mr. Chavez owe a duty to the decedent and others similarly situated? Did he breach that duty by parking his tractor-trailer rig on the shoulder of I-80? Did breach of that duty proximately cause injury to the decedent? Ostensibly, this appeal involves only the issue of proximate cause but, in this case, a proper proximate cause determination cannot be made without exploration of the duty owed to the decedent. Duty, like proximate cause, involves the question of foreseeability:

The primacy of foreseeability in determining whether a duty exists has been echoed by numerous courts and commentators. For example, in Beugler v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry., 490 F.3d 1224 (10th Cir. 2007), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that
Many factors inform the duty analysis, but the most important consideration is foreseeability. Generally a defendant owes a duty of care to all persons who are foreseeably endangered by his conduct with respect to all risks which make the conduct unreasonably dangerous. Foreseeability establishes a 'zone of risk, ' which is to say that it forms a basis for assessing whether the conduct creates a generalized and foreseeable risk of harming others.
Id. at 1228 (quoting Iglehart v. Bd. of County Comm'rs of Rogers County, 60 P.3d 497, 502 (Okla. 2002)); see also Henderson v. United States, 846 F.2d 1233, 1234 (9th Cir. 1988); Winschel v. Brown, 171 P.3d 142, 146 (Alaska 2007); 57A Am.Jur.2d Negligence § 121, at 196 (2004) ("The most important consideration in the determination of whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty is whether the defendant was foreseeably endangered by the defendant's conduct.") (footnote omitted).

Glenn v. Union Pac. R. Co., 2011 WY 126, ¶ 34, 262 P.3d 177, 193-94 (Wyo. 2011).

         [¶12] We have not had the occasion to address proximate cause in a factually similar context. However, the California Supreme Court addressed foreseeability issues in a case presenting facts nearly identical to those in this case. Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 248 P.3d 1170 (Cal. 2011). In Cabral,

[a] truck driver working for Ralphs Grocery Company (Ralphs) stopped his tractor-trailer rig alongside an interstate highway in order to have a snack. Plaintiff's husband, decedent Adelelmo Cabral, 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. (Cabral 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 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.

Id., 248 P.3d at 1172.[4] Appellants challenged the verdict on appeal, asserting that Ralphs "owed Cabral no duty to avoid stopping near the freeway for a nonemergency." Id., 248 P.3d at 1176. The court framed the issue as

whether a freeway driver owes other drivers a duty of ordinary care in choosing whether, where and how to stop on the side of the road. Because the general duty to take ordinary care in the conduct of one's activities . . . indisputably applies to the operation of a motor vehicle, the issue is also properly stated as whether a categorical exception to that general rule should be made exempting drivers from potential liability to other freeway users for stopping alongside a freeway.

Id. In evaluating whether a duty existed, the court first considered "the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff" arising from the defendant's conduct. It had no difficulty in concluding that potential harm to other motorists was "clearly foreseeable." Id., 248 P.3d at 1177.

In the generalized sense of foreseeability pertinent to the duty question, that a vehicle parked by the side of a freeway may be struck by another vehicle leaving the freeway, resulting in injury to either vehicle's occupants, is clearly foreseeable. 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 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. This general foreseeability is reflected in the Official Reports, in that numerous decisions have involved collisions between vehicles leaving a highway and vehicles or other obstacles on the roadside. As we observed in Bigbee v. Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. (1983) 34 Cal.3d 49, 58, 192 Cal.Rptr. 857, 665 P.2d 947 (albeit in discussing an issue of breach, not duty), "it is not uncommon for speeding and/or intoxicated drivers to lose control of their cars and crash into poles, buildings or whatever else may be standing alongside the road they travel-no matter how straight and level that road may be."
Evidence at trial showed that safety standards and guidelines have been formulated with the goal of avoiding collisions between vehicles leaving freeways and trucks or other obstacles alongside the freeway. A highway engineer testified that freeway safety standards disapproved placing any "massive obstacle" within 30 feet of the traffic lanes. Where feasible, existing obstacles-objects massive or large enough to cause rapid deceleration or change in direction to a vehicle leaving the freeway-are to be removed. Where they cannot be removed, relocated or redesigned to bend or break, they are to be protected with guardrails or similar devices. The Ralphs transportation manager in charge of driver training and discipline testified that when he learned Ralphs drivers were stopping on the freeway side for nonemergency reasons he instructed them not to do so. He regarded such stopping as a danger to the drivers themselves and to other motorists "should they leave the roadway." The existence of guidelines seeking to keep the shoulder area free of massive obstacles supports a conclusion the possibility of vehicles leaving the freeway and colliding with obstacles is generally foreseeable.

Id., 248 P.3d at 1177-78 (footnotes omitted).

         [¶13] The court also rejected a defense claim that there was not a sufficiently close connection between the defendant's negligence and the collision.

Unlike the situations in Bryant-and Richards-no third party negligence intervened between the Ralphs driver's negligent conduct and Adelelmo Cabral's injury. Ralphs did not merely place[] decedent in a position to be acted upon by [a] negligent third party. Rather, the conduct of the Ralphs driver that the jury found negligent, stopping his tractor-trailer alongside an interstate highway for a nonemergency reason, placed by the roadway a massive, if temporary, obstacle not previously there. It thus directly created the risk of collision for any vehicle leaving the freeway at that point, the same risk that eventuated and resulted in Cabral's death.

Id., 248 P.3d at 1181 (quotation marks and citation omitted).[5] The court went on: "To the extent Horn acted negligently in stopping alongside the freeway, as the jury found he did, it is because he unreasonably created a risk of precisely the type of event that occurred." Id.

         [¶14] The court also rejected Ralphs' claim that the stop was not a proximate cause of the collision.

While potential liability differs in the two situations (emergency and nonemergency), causation does not. Under the evidence at trial, a jury could find Horn's stop was a substantial factor in causing the collision whether or not it was made for an emergency-though if made for an emergency, the stop would presumably not have been found negligent.

Id., 248 P.3d at 1184 (emphasis omitted).

         [¶15] In Cabral, the court found that a duty existed under the general duty of ordinary care owed by drivers to one another. We have recognized a similar duty in Wyoming. "One owes the duty to every person in our society to use reasonable care to avoid injury to the other person in any situation in which it could be reasonably anticipated or foreseen that a failure to use such care might result in such injury." McClellan v. Tottenhoff, 666 P.2d 408, 412 (Wyo. 1983), superseded by statute on unrelated grounds, as recognized in Daniels v. Carpenter, 2003 WY 11, 62 P.3d 555 (Wyo. 2003) (quoting Alegria v. Payonk, 101 Idaho 617, 619, 619 P.2d 135, 137 (1980)).

         [¶16] There is also another source for finding that Mr. Chavez owed a duty to the decedent and other motorists using that portion of I-80. Reasonable inferences from the evidence in the record support the allegation that Mr. Chavez parked illegally on the shoulder.[6] He received a citation for violating Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-5-504(a)(i)(M) (LexisNexis 2017) which provides:

(a) Except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with law or the directions of a police officer or traffic-control device, no person shall:
(i) Stop, stand or park a vehicle:
(M) At any place where official traffic-control devices prohibit stopping.

         Traffic signs in the vicinity prohibited parking on the shoulder unless the parking was for "emergency" purposes. Violation of a statute is, at a minimum, evidence of negligence if the purpose of the statute is, in whole or part, "to protect a class of persons which includes the one whose interest is invaded." Distad v. Cubin, 633 P.2d 167, 175 (Wyo. 1981). If the violation is unexcused and the legislative enactment is adopted by the Court as defining the standard of conduct of a reasonable person, the violation "is negligence in itself." Frost v. Allred, 2006 WY 155, ¶ 12, 148 P.3d 17, 21 (Wyo. 2006). Determination of whether the statute applies in this case is relevant to the issue of foreseeability. If the statute applies and is relevant to determining the standard of care or duty, it is so only because the statute was intended to protect the class of persons that includes the decedent. In other words, if the statute applies, it does so because injury to motorists on I-80 arising from the conduct was foreseeable. There is nothing in the record to indicate that the statute under which Mr. Chavez was cited was not intended to protect motorists on that portion of I-80. In the summary judgment context, reasonable inferences would place the decedent in the class of individuals intended to be protected by the statute and the prohibition against parking. If potential harm to the decedent was foreseeable for purposes of establishing duty, it is also foreseeable for purposes of establishing proximate cause.

The thrust of the rules about class of person and type of risk, harm, or interest is sometimes expressed by saying that violation of the statute is not negligence per se unless violation is a proximate cause of the harm suffered. Proximate cause is part of the language of common law tort analysis that is often equivalent to the class of person/type of risk or harm analysis in cases of statutory violation. The class of person/type of risk or harm language may be a little more precise, but courts usually appear to have the same ideas in mind when they use the language of proximate cause.

Dobbs, § 137, at 325-26.

         [¶17] Although it does not appear to be an issue in the case before us, we would also note that the Cabral court specifically rejected a request for a liability limitation based upon public policy considerations. The court determined that there was no justification for "creating a duty exception immunizing drivers from potential liability for negligently stopping their vehicles alongside freeways." Cabral, 248 P.3d at 1181-82. As the Cabral court recognized:

Indeed, one might ask under what circumstances Ralphs would have us recognize a duty of ordinary care in stopping alongside a freeway, if not in these. If stopping 16 feet from the traffic lanes exempts a driver from the duty of care, does the same hold for parking six feet from the lane? Six inches? If we are to create immunity for a truck driver stopping for a few minutes to have a snack, should we also do so for one who decides to sleep for hours by the roadside rather than pay for a motel room? Would the categorical exemption Ralphs seeks still apply if a tractor-trailer driver parked an inch from the traffic lanes, on the outside of a curve, leaving the rig there all night without lights? To ask these questions is to see why a categorical exemption is not appropriate. The duty of reasonable care is the same under all these circumstances; what varies with the specific facts of the case is whether the defendant has breached that duty. That question, as discussed earlier, is generally one to be decided by the jury, not the court.

Id., 248 P.3d at 1183 (emphasis omitted).

         [¶18] We agree with the reasoning of the California Supreme Court. The dangers to highway users presented by a parked tractor-trailer along I-80 are no less foreseeable in Wyoming than they are in California. In Cabral, the parked vehicle arguably posed less of a danger. It was parked 16 feet off the traveled portion of the highway. In this case, portions of the tractor-trailer were within ten inches of the eastbound lanes of I-80. As in Cabral, the parked vehicle was "massive." Appellant's expert estimated the weight of the tractor-trailer at 60, 000 pounds. The danger described in Cabral is reflected in the report of Appellant's expert. He noted that the posted speed limit was 75 m.p.h., and that the damage to the decedent's vehicle was "consistent with an impact at freeway speeds." The tractor-trailer was stationary and "during the collision [the decedent's vehicle] would have sustained a change in velocity of between 56 and 74 mph." Based upon his review of the accident scene and highway crash statistics, he opined that

[i]t is unknown if the tractor-trailer had not been illegally parked, if [decedent's vehicle] would have continued to travel off of the paved shoulder and onto the grassy shoulder of the highway or if he would have remained on the shoulder and brought his vehicle to a safe stop. Assuming he did run off the road at speeds of 60 to 80 mph, statistics show the [l]ikelihood of him ...

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