Police Liability for Third Car Hitting Parked Car During Traffic Stop

In Whitton v. State of California, supra, 98 Cal. App. 3d 235, the a California Highway Patrol officers stopped the plaintiff's car for a speeding violation. ( Id. at pp. 238-239.) The a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers parked their vehicle about 15 feet behind the plaintiff's car on the right shoulder of the highway and, while they questioned the plaintiff and administered sobriety tests, a third vehicle struck the CHP vehicle from behind, causing it to pin the plaintiff against her car. (Ibid.) The plaintiff filed a negligence action against the state and the a California Highway Patrol officers, but the jury found for the defendants. (Id. at p. 238.) The trial court denied the plaintiff's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. (Ibid.) On appeal the plaintiff contended substantial evidence did not support the jury's verdict and the trial court erred by denying her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. ( Id. at p. 240.) She argued the CHP officers placed her in a zone of danger, improperly exposing her to a foreseeable risk of harm. (Ibid.) The Court of Appeal concluded there was substantial evidence to support the jury's finding that the officers acted in a reasonable manner. ( Id. at pp. 241-242.) It stated that it was a question of fact for the jury whether the officers acted in a reasonable manner. ( Id. at p. 241.) It further stated the officers had a duty "to perform their official duties in a reasonable manner," but that they need not exercise perfect judgment. (Ibid.) The jury's verdict "indicated that the jury accepted the substantial evidence that the officers did not place or compel plaintiff to remain between the two cars and that she was not at such position at the moment of the impact." ( Id. at p. 242.) "The evidence disclosed that the officers followed departmental rules in stopping, questioning, and testing [the plaintiff]. There was evidence that the discussion properly took place on the untraveled shoulder of the road and to the side of the parked vehicles." (Ibid.) The court therefore limited the plaintiff's appellate contention to a claim that the CHP officers were absolutely liable despite the substantial evidence supporting the jury's verdict. (Ibid.) the court rejected that contention, stating: "It cannot be said that the officers in this case were negligent as a matter of law, simply because they stopped the speeding motorist at this location and inquired as to her driving ability. the fact that a possibility existed that the vehicles might be hit by a drunken driver did not change the situation and create a new responsibility on the part of the officers as insurers of the motorists' safety from drunken drivers." (Ibid.) The court concluded the plaintiff had shown no reason to create and apply "a rule of almost absolute liability." ( Id. at p. 243.) It stated: In summary, when an officer stops a motorist on the shoulder of the highway and allows the motorist to remain in or near the area, such officer is not negligent simply because there is a possibility that a drunken driver might collide with such vehicles parked on the shoulder and off the traveled lane. All possibilities of risk even if 'foreseeable' in the abstract as possibilities cannot be eliminated. There was no evidence in the case at bench that any of the risks to plaintiff, and which are common to all users of the public area, was increased by any negligent conduct on the part of [the officers]. Negligence seldom, if ever, is a pure question of law.