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Shipp v. Western Engineering, Inc.

On October 5, 2020, Mastagni Holstedt attorneys, David P. Mastagni and Grant A. Winter, prevailed in overturning a superior court decision that granted summary judgment in favor of a contractor whose alleged negligent conduct contributed to a traffic collision on a public roadway. Mr. Mastagni and Mr. Winter’s work on appeal not only resulted in a victory for their client who was injured in the collision, but also sets additional precedent for the way that future negligence cases should be decided in California.

The case, and now-published appellate opinion, Shipp v. Western Engineering, Inc. (2020) 55 Cal.App.5th 476, involves a contractor who was performing construction work on a public highway in El Dorado County. The defendant contractor had implemented a “reversing lane closure,” whereby traffic traveling in one direction was stopped, allowing traffic traveling in the other direction to pass through a single lane in, and around, the construction zone. While attempting to pass through this area, a motorist was forced to stop behind two cars that were stopped in the middle of the road due to gridlock caused by the contractor’s flagger station. Shortly after stopping, the motorist was rear-ended by another vehicle coming from behind in the single open lane of traffic.

Represented by Mastagni Holstedt, the motorist filed suit against the contractor, asserting a claim for negligent traffic control. In response, the contractor moved for summary judgment, arguing that it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff, and that its actions were not a substantial factor in causing the accident for purposes of establishing negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the contractor, and Mastagni Holstedt appealed on behalf of the motorist.

The Court of Appeal for the Third District of California, reversed the lower court’s entry of summary judgment, holding that the contractor did owe the motorist a duty of care. While the question of duty is generally decided on a case-by-case basis, the court noted that California adheres to the well-established principle that all persons are required to exercise ordinary care to prevent others from being injured as a result of their conduct. Although the court recognized that certain public policy considerations, referred to as the “Rowland factors,” may carve out an exception to this general rule of duty, the court found that none of those factors directed a different outcome. Applying these principles to the case on appeal, the court held that a contractor working on a public highway owes the traveling public a duty to protect against injury that may result from the contractor’s negligence, even if the hazard is created by conditions immediately adjacent to the road where the contractor was working.

As a result of Mastagni Holstedt’s efforts on behalf of its clients in this case, new precedent has been established that will better protect California’s traveling public in the future.

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