Here in Missouri, it’s been established for more than a decade that plaintiffs in truck accident cases cannot assert claims against trucking companies for both negligent entrustment and vicarious liability. So I was interested, as a St. Louis semi truck accident attorney, to see a similar ruling from the California Supreme Court. In Diaz v. Carcamo et al., the California high court reversed one of the state’s appeals courts for failing to follow precedent on the issue. It disagreed that the 1954 ruling in Armenta v. Churchill conflicted with California’s comparative fault system, and ultimately ordered a new trial in the case.
The plaintiff is Dawn Diaz, who was injured in a tractor-trailer accident on Highway 101. As she headed south on the divided highway, a northbound driver, Karen Tagliaferri, attempted to pass trucker Jose Caramo, pulled back into the lane, clipped Carcamo’s truck and flew over the divider. Diaz sustained permanent, serious injuries and eventually sued Tagliaferri, Carcamo and Carcamo’s employer, Sugar Transport. At trial, Sugar offered to admit vicarious liability if Carcamo was found negligent, but argued that admitting vicarious liability would bar Diaz from pursuing claims against it for negligence in hiring, entrusting and retaining Carcamo. The judge disagreed, and the jury eventually found that Sugar was liable for negligence as well as vicariously through Carcamo.
Sugar appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. It acknowledged the Armenta decision, but noted that it did not involve an allocation of comparative fault, which was created in California in the 1970s. It also dismissed 2005’s Jeld-Wen Inc. v. Superior Court, in which a Court of Appeal dismissed a negligent entrustment claim after the defendant admitted vicarious liability, saying the case had not dealt with allocation of fault.
The Supreme Court disagreed with this. Under Armenta, it said, an admission of vicarious liability makes a negligent entrustment claim irrelevant. As a result, it said, the plaintiffs in this case should not have been permitted to introduce evidence in support of the negligence claims, including damaging evidence about Carcamo’s employment history, honesty and immigration status. The court disagreed that fault cannot be properly allocated if Sugar is removed under Armenta. Under Jeld-Wen, an employer that admits liability bears exactly the same amount of fault as the employee; thus, the employer should not even be a party that can potentially be at fault. To do otherwise could subject the employer to more fault than the employee has, which the court said was inequitable. Because the trial court failed to follow this rule and the jury may have been prejudiced by extra evidence about Carcamo, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial.
As a Missouri tractor-trailer accident lawyer, I would prefer that the California and Missouri courts had come to a different conclusion. The theories of vicarious liability and negligent entrustment are similar. However, by admitting vicarious liability, trucking companies can stop the jury from ever hearing evidence about the negligence of the trucker or their own negligence. In fact, as a result of this kind of decision, trucking companies now admit vicarious liability just so they can keep juries from hearing about their bad decisions. This is not necessarily fatal to the case, but it keeps important information away from the jury. And as a southern Illinois big rig accident attorney, I think juries should have the fullest picture possible when they decide cases, even when it’s not especially flattering to the defendants.
If you or someone in your family suffered a serious injury because of a trucking company’s or trucker’s careless driving, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe right away to ensure your rights are protected. For a free, confidential case evaluation, you can send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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