On Feb. 29, 2012, a storm passed through southern Shasta County causing hailstones to accumulate on a several-mile stretch of I-5. Three separate motor vehicle accidents occurred in the same location on southbound I-5 in Cottonwood.
Plaintiff J.D., age 44, was on duty working for the State of California Department of Highway Patrol (CHP) and responded to the scene of the first collision. J.D. was on scene outside of his vehicle investigating the first collision when a vehicle operated by Cordova, who was traveling southbound on I-5 in the course and scope of his employment with CR Motors Inc., lost control in the hail and slid off the highway. Cordova almost struck Jason, but Jason was able to jump out of the way and avoid physical injury.
As J.D. was investigating the second collision (Cordova), Barbour was also traveling southbound on I-5 in the course and scope of his employment with J.A. Sutherland, Inc. Barbour lost control of his vehicle in the hail and slid towards the scene of the other collisions. Barbour left the highway and struck and killed a fire captain who was on scene. Jason, who had been speaking with the fire captain seconds earlier, dove down a steep embankment adjacent to the roadway, avoiding the vehicle.
Barbour claimed that he lost control while taking evasive action to avoid a car fishtailing in front of him. He claimed this driver was Wallers, who was driving in the course and scope of his employment with Frozen Gourmet, Inc.
J.D. claimed injuries to his back and knee and PTSD. He sued Cordova, Barbour, J.A. Sutherland, Inc., Wallers, Frozen Gourmet, Inc., and CR Motors Inc.
Cordova and CR Motors, Inc. settled out of the case prior to trial and were dismissed.
Plaintiff alleged that defendants were operating their vehicles too fast for the road and weather conditions, and failed to take measures to slow their vehicles despite the presence of emergency vehicles on the shoulder.
During trial, plaintiff was also able to demonstrate a crucial fact tending to establish culpability on the part of Barbour. Specifically, J.D. located a co-worker who was told by Barbour that he was looking at his phone at or around the time of the accident, which caused him to become distracted. The witness initially refused to cooperate, but after finally getting her to appear at trial, she claimed to have no memory of any conversations with Barbour due to amnesia from a head injury. Her audiotaped statement to CHP investigators was admitted and played to the jury through the “past recollection recorded” hearsay exception. This allowed the jury to learn about Barbour’s admissions regarding distracted driving.
Defendants asserted that J.D. should be barred from recovering any damages under the “Firefighter’s Rule,” which would bar all professional rescuers from collecting on damages that occur in the course of their duties even in cases of clear negligence by other parties.
Defendants asserted that they were not negligent and that the unusual hail storm and icy conditions were the causes of the accident. In support of this argument, defendants noted that three separate motorists all lost control and crashed at the exact location. Defendants also alleged that J.D. negligently managed the scene of the accident.
Plaintiff defeated Firefighter’s Rule arguments on demurrer and summary judgment. Similar arguments were asserted at trial. Plaintiff showed the jury dash cam video from J.D.’s patrol cruiser. This captured dozens of motorists safely navigating through the accident scene at reduced speeds.