Factual and procedural background
On June 4, 2015, Brett Luebke was driving his car on northbound Interstate 405 when his vehicle’s engine died. He coasted onto the shoulder and called the Automobile Club of Southern California to ask for roadside assistance. Luebke remained sitting inside of his vehicle for two hours as he waited for a tow truck to arrive. While he was still there, an unlicensed driver named Tong Yin lost control of his car and ran off the road, striking Luebke’s vehicle in its rear.
On June 1, 2017, Luebke filed a form complaint alleging one count of negligence against Yin, the Auto Club, and 25 Doe complainants. He subsequently amended his complaint to add Brent-Air Towing, the towing company that had originally been dispatched to provide roadside assistance but had failed to arrive. In his complaint, Luebke alleged that he had called the Auto Club for assistance, but its driver had not responded in a timely fashion. He stated that he had been forced to wait for an unreasonably long time for help and was struck by Yin during the interim, suffering injuries and property damages.
The Auto Club answered Luebke’s complaint on June 11, 2018, and Brent-Air Towing answered on July 23, 2018. The Auto Club and Brent-Air sent Luebke a form interrogatory and asked whether he contended that anyone violated any regulation, ordinance, or statute. He answered that Yin had violated Cal. Veh. Code Sect. 22017. He also answered a request for admission that the Auto Club did not cause his accident in the affirmative.
On April 18, 2019, the Auto Club and Brent-Air filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Luebke could not prove causation. They cited Luebke’s previous answers in the discovery that agreed the Auto Club did not cause the accident and that he only listed Yin when asked whether he contended that any of the defendants had violated the law. They also noted that Luebke had failed to list any facts in his complaint that would support his claim of negligence against the Auto Club and Brent-Aire.
Luebke filed a motion in opposition to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. In it, he provided a lot more detail than what he had previously provided. He said that he called the Auto Club around 5:30 p.m. to request roadside assistance and was told by the dispatcher that a tow truck would arrive within around 30 to 45 minutes. A Department of Transportation worker stopped shortly afterward and asked Luebke if he needed help. Luebke informed him that a tow truck was already on the way from the Auto Club. At 7 p.m., Luebke called the Auto Club again because a truck had never arrived. The dispatcher told him that the original tow company had canceled and that it would dispatch a different company’s truck. While he continued to wait for a second tow truck to arrive, his vehicle was struck by Yin at 7:30.
In his opposition motion, Luebke argued that being struck by another vehicle while on the side of the road in a disabled car was a reasonably foreseeable risk of failing to promptly respond to a call for roadside assistance. He also argued that Yin’s actions did not constitute a superseding event and did not relieve the Auto Club of its concurrent negligence. He also attached an amendment that had been filed by his attorney asking for his answer admitting to the question about the Auto Club’s responsibility be changed to denial.
The trial court issued a tentative ruling to take the matter under advisement. On Sept. 11, 2019, it issued a ruling in which it granted the Auto Club’s and Brent-Air’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court noted that Brent-Air was not named in the complaint and that Luebke did not present any evidence to support his contention that Brent-Air was the tow truck company that canceled. The court found that because of that, Luebke could not show that Brent-Air had any role in the accident. The court also found that Luebke could not establish the Auto Club’s negligence for his accident as a matter of law. Luebke filed an appeal.
Issue: Whether the trial court properly granted the Auto Club’s motion for summary judgment on the question of duty when the sole basis for the defendant’s argument was Luebke’s admission on the interrogatory?
In the motion for summary judgment, Auto Club’s sole argument was that Luebke had admitted on the interrogatories that the Auto Club did not directly or proximately cause Luebke’s accident and injuries. While Luebke argued in his opposition motion that he had amended his answer to change it to denial, the Auto Club said that the attempt to deny was not properly noticed in a motion. While Luebke listed Brent-Air as a respondent to the appeal, he did not challenge the trial court’s ruling for Brent-Air in his appeal.
Rule: A defendant can file a motion for summary judgment based on the fact that the plaintiff cannot prove one of the elements or that it has a complete affirmative defense to the action.
Under Cal. Civ. Code Proc. § 437c, a court only properly grants a motion for summary judgment when all of the documents submitted show that there are no remaining issues of triable fact so that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Defendants can file motions for summary judgment when plaintiffs cannot prove a required element of the claim or when the defendants have complete affirmative defenses to the claims that have been filed.
The court reviewed the Auto Club’s motion for summary judgment. It determined that the Auto Club’s argument for its motion for summary judgment was that Luebke could not meet his burden for an element of the negligence claim rather than the Auto Club having a complete defense. The court noted that to meet its burden on a motion for summary judgment as to an element of the cause of action, the defendant must show that the plaintiff does not have evidence to prove at least one element of the cause of action and cannot reasonably obtain it. Once the defendant meets its burden, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to prove that a triable issue of material fact remains.
In a negligence cause of action, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a legal duty of care but breached it. He or she must also show that the defendant’s breach of the duty of care proximately caused his or her injuries. However, in the Auto Club’s motion for summary judgment, its only argument about duty was that Luebke had admitted that the Auto Club was not proximately responsible for his accident. However, the trial court had allowed Luebke to amend his answer to a denial. The court had also rejected the Auto Club’s assumption for the purpose of deciding the motion for summary judgment.
By rejecting the Auto Club’s only argument in its motion for summary judgment, the appeals court found that the trial court should not have granted the motion for the Auto Club. The appeals court also found that the Auto Club’s attempt to raise a new argument on appeal also failed since it had not presented that argument in its motion for summary judgment.
The appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision to grant the motion for summary judgment in favor of the Auto Club. It affirmed the trial court’s decision for Brent-Air. The case against the Auto Club was returned to the lower court for further proceedings, and Luebke was awarded his costs on appeal.
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