Commercial Vendors: Duty to Secure Cargo

Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 359, 156 Cal.Rptr.3d 673

A highway patrolman who was paralyzed when he was struck by a vehicle while standing on the side of a freeway, filed suit against the driver of the vehicle as well as a motorsports dealership whose employees had loaded two dirt bikes into the vehicle 90 minutes earlier. The plaintiff alleged that the driver had lost control of his vehicle due in part to being distracted by movement of the dirt bikes, one of which had just been purchased from the dealership. The plaintiff further alleged that the dealership’s employees had contributed to the accident by negligently loading and securing the bikes in the back of the truck.

Following a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the dealership appealed, contending that vendors do not owe a duty to load and secure cargo so as not to distract the driver of the vehicle. However, the court of appeal disagreed, holding that such a duty exists, and that a categorical “no duty” exception for vendors should not be created:

Bert’s argues that policy considerations “justify a categorical ‘no-duty’ rule” that would absolve vendors of any duty to load and secure cargo in a vehicle so as not to distract the vehicle’s driver. We certainly possess the authority to exempt entire categories of negligent conduct from Civil Code section 1714’s duty of care when such an exemption is “clearly supported” by public policy. (Cabral, supra, 51 Cal.4th at p. 771, 122 Cal.Rptr.3d 313, 248 P.3d 1170; Ballard, supra, 41 Cal.3d at p. 573, fn. 6, 224 Cal.Rptr. 664, 715 P.2d 624.) Before exercising this authority, however, we must ascertain whether the harm flowing from the potentially exempted conduct is foreseeable, and if so, whether other public policy interests nevertheless counsel against imposing a duty.

. . .
[W]e can generally foresee that a vendor’s negligence in loading or securing cargo could harm others on the roadway. It is foreseeable that cargo negligently loaded or secured in a vehicle could distract the vehicle’s driver in a variety of ways—by making noise, blocking the driver’s view, interfering with his or her control of the vehicle, or falling out. It is further foreseeable that a driver so distracted could injure others on or near the roadway.

. . .
White’s relative blameworthiness is pertinent to the separate issue of causation. Imposing a duty to carefully load and secure cargo, with resulting liability for the negligent discharge of that duty, would be effective in discouraging negligence and thereby preventing future harm. Moreover, Bert’s has not presented any reason to believe that vendors’ insurance policies are unavailable to cover liability for negligence in any loading and securing of cargo they voluntarily undertake for their customers.

. . .
Although vendors are potentially liable only if they voluntarily undertake to load and secure cargo, we are not persuaded vendors will refuse to help their customers load and secure their recent purchases just because the vendors are required to do so carefully. More broadly, as between customers and vendors, it is more efficient for vendors to be the repository of expertise in loading and securing cargo and to absorb the cost of insurance either through special fees for loading or as part of their general customer service.

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