Does the CHP owe any duty of care to the public in promptly responding to highway lane blockage once its 911 operator responds affirmatively to caller?
In Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Department of the California Highway Patrol (filed 1/23/13, pub. ordered 2/14/13) 2013 DJDAR 2169, during the early a.m. hours, an SUV on State Route 99 had crashed, coming to rest on its side blocking at least one lane. A passing motorist called to report the accident and road blockage to the CHP 911 operator, who responded "We'll go ahead and put this out," but failed to enter the code for lane blockage, delaying the CHP response to the scene. Due to this input error, a more distant CHP unit was summoned to the scene, rather than a nearby unit. Within about three minutes of the call, before the more distant unit could arrive, a Greyhound bus collided with the unlit, disabled SUV causing multiple deaths.
Greyhound was sued; its cross-complaint included a cause of action against the CHP alleging negligence based on unnecessary delay after being alerted of the SUV crash and failure to enter the proper code to get a timely response to the scene, thus substantially contributing to the fatal collision that followed. CHP demurred based in part on lack of duty. Greyhound responded that a duty of care arose when the CHP operator responded to the 911 caller that CHP was on the way, thus dissuading the caller from rendering assistance at the scene. Trial court granted demurrer without leave to amend, dismissing CHP from the action. Greyhound appealed.
The Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, affirmed finding that law enforcement officials have no duty to come to the aid of another unless a special relationship exists; such a relationship arises if the agency's act created the peril, or contributes to, increases, or changes the risk that otherwise exists. The court determined that no such relationship existed here between the CHP and the injured bus passengers because there was no express promise inducing reliance or increasing person's risks of harm. The appellate court cited California Supreme Court authority in support of this analysis: Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal.3d 18, and Clemente v. State of California (1985) 40 Cal.3d 202.
The reviewing court found Greyhound's argument fail for several reasons: (1) Greyhound's theory expands the narrow special relationship exception; (2) CHP did not induce the bus passengers to rely on CHP to their detriment or to increase their risk of harm; and (3) Greyhound's claim is replete with speculation and conjecture as a 911 caller would have had no duty to control the SUV accident scene to prevent a further collision, and the three-minute interval between the call and the bus accident was too short to expect that a closer CHP unit would have made a difference. As a final policy caveat, the court notes that to accept Greyhound's argument would make the CHP an "insurer" rather than an "enforcer."