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Unfair Surprises at Trial and Your California Truck Accident Case

A recent ruling by the First District Court of Appeal offered a useful insight into what happens when you’re a victim of an unfair strategy by your litigation opponent. The decision upheld a lower court’s order giving the family of a deceased trucker a renewed opportunity to pursue their case arising from the fiery crash that killed their loved one. The state’s Department of Transportation carried out a pretrial and trial strategy that unfairly surprised and prejudiced the trucker’s family, and when that happens, you have certain rights, such as the right to a new trial, which the court awarded to the family in this case.


The case arose from a massive crash along a Northern California highway. V.M., a 24-year-old garbage truck driver with a clean driving record, was traveling southbound on I-880 in San Leandro when the driver of a southbound Toyota Corolla lost control due to a blown-out tire. The Corolla swerved into V.M.’s path, striking the truck. V.M. jackknifed across three lanes and slammed into the retaining wall that separated the northbound and southbound lanes. V.M.’s truck plowed into northbound traffic, hitting several vehicles. The wreck triggered an explosion and a fire. V.M. survived the wreck but died in the fire.

The truck driver’s family sued the California Department of Transportation, alleging that CalTrans did not maintain the roadway properly, which is what allowed V.M.’s truck to enter the northbound lanes. CalTrans argued that the retaining wall was not constructed or maintained defectively.

As with any legal action, there are several very important phases, including what takes place before the trial. In the pre-trial part of this case, the V.M. family made several requests for information from the department, seeking to discover more about the nature of the defense the department would present. Based on the responses CalTrans did and did not give, the family concluded that the department would not argue that the risk of injury from the highway’s condition was merely trivial or minor, which would have meant that the roadway did not meet the law’s standard for a dangerous condition, and the department could not be held liable.

At trial, though, the department did argue that the risk of injury was minor or trivial and that the barrier did not qualify as a dangerous condition. The jury issued its verdict in favor of the department. The family asked for a new trial, which the trial judge granted. The family, the court concluded, had been a victim of an unfair surprise at trial, which required a new trial.

That decision led the department to appeal, but the appeals court upheld the ruling granting the new trial. When you go to trial, the law expects you to prepare to counter any valid argument the other side properly makes. The law does not, however, allow either side to surprise unfairly or sandbag their opponent. If your case is undermined as a result of an “accident or surprise, which ordinary prudence could not have guarded against,” the law may allow you to obtain a new trial.

That’s what happened in the V.M. family’s case. CalTrans carried out a litigation strategy that caused the family to believe, reasonably but mistakenly, that the department was not going to argue about whether the roadway’s risk of injury was trivial or substantial. The department’s strategy not only confused the family but also misled the trial judge. This clearly showed that “ordinary prudence could not have guarded against” the mistaken belief regarding the department’s trial strategy.

The V.M. family’s case offers an important view into the many phases of the process of seeking compensation for the damages your family and you have suffered, and the importance of each part. With experienced California counsel, you can more effectively navigate each part of the process. The hardworking San Mateo truck accident attorneys at the Law Offices of Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos are dedicated to helping injured people seek justice and fair compensation for the harm they’ve suffered. To set up a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys, contact us at 650-345-8484 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

California Plaintiffs Succeed on Appeal in Construction Injury Lawsuit Against Property Owner, San Mateo Injury Lawyers Blog, published April 26, 2016

California Appeals Court Affirms $15 Million Verdict Against Semi-Truck Operator in Wrongful Death Action, San Mateo Injury Lawyers Blog, published November 4, 2015

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