Woodland Hills car accident lawyer Barry P. Goldberg is regularly consulted about auto accidents which occur at intersections where the lights went out, for some reason. While public entities, like Cities, are generally immune for lights that may malfunction, on occasion private parties can be responsible when the traffic lights go out. That is the situation in the recent case, Lichtman v. Siemans Industry Inc. (November 2, 2017) On September 4, 2011.
In Lichtman, a power outage caused the traffic signal in Glendale to go dark. Because there were no batteries in the backup unit for that intersection, the traffic signal did not function in any direction. There was a big accident with severe injuries.
Plaintiffs sued several entities to recover damages for their personal injuries. Defendant moved for summary judgment, contending it owed no duty of care to plaintiffs and its actions were not a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries. The trial court ruled as a matter of law defendant did not owe plaintiffs a duty of care as the supplier of the backup battery.
California Negligence Law
The Court of Appeal reversed after an exhaustive analysis of California negligence law. The Court recognized that a duty running from a defendant to a plaintiff may arise from contract, even though the plaintiff and the defendant are not in privity. (Biakanja v. Irving (1958) 49 Cal.2d 647 (Biakanja); Bily v. Arthur Young & Co. (1992) 3 Cal.4th 370.) Under these circumstances, the existence of a duty is not the general rule, but may be found based on public policy considerations.
In Biakanja, the Supreme Court identified the factors that may result in a court’s conclusion a duty exists:
“The determination whether in a specific case the defendant will be held liable to a third person not in privity is a matter of policy and involves the balancing of various factors, among which are the extent to which the transaction was intended to affect the plaintiff, the foreseeability of harm to him, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, and the policy of preventing future harm.” (Biakanja, supra, 49 Cal.2d at p. 650.)
In sum, Courts, in the Biakanja context, should consider “the extent to which the transaction was intended to affect the plaintiff” which serves as a bridge between the absence of privity and liability, particularly in situations where the only claimed losses are economic. (Biakanja, supra, 49 Cal.2d at p. 650.)
The defendant pointed to White v. Southern Cal. Edison Co. (1994) 25 Cal.App.4th 442 (White). In White, the plaintiff’s moped collided at night with a left-turning van in an intersection. The nearest streetlight, which was more than 130 feet away, was not functioning at the time of the accident and the plaintiff contended the lack of illumination proximately caused his injuries. The plaintiff sued the public utility that owned and maintained the streetlight. The trial court granted the public utility’s motion for summary judgment and this court affirmed.
Biakanja Factors and Analysis:
The Extent to Which the Transaction Was Intended to Affect Plaintiffs.
The Lichtman Court stated that whether one views a battery backup system as promoting public safety or merely regulating traffic flow, the units help drivers and pedestrians safely traverse traffic intersections during power outages. The contract between defendant and the City was clearly intended to, and does, affect plaintiffs. This factor fails to support the conclusion that defendant owed no duty as a matter of law.
The Court concluded that “The existence of a duty of care is a question of law decided on a case-by-case basis.” (M.W. v. Panama Buena Vista Union School Dist. (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 508, 516.) In this case, analyzed under Biakanja, the Court found defendant failed to establish as a matter of law the absence of a duty to plaintiffs. Therefore, the Defendant was not entitled to summary judgment.
Cases involving street traffic controls can be extremely difficult. To be sure, we recognize in general that power outages are not only possible, but are likely. Thus, it is generally unfair to hold the City liable. On the other hand, some cities, like Glendale have the foresight to provide battery backups primarily to protect its residents from serious injuries and accidents resulting from traffic light outages, for any reason. To be sure, the City of Glendale was not liable for the traffic light failure.
However, why should a company, like Siemans, who sells and maintains a battery backup be permitted to avoid liability when provides the backup negligently? We would expect that more and more cities will start to provide reasonable backups for traffic light outages as the costs drop and availability of batteries becomes more prevalent. Really, living in Southern California, it only seems natural that street lights should never go out.
If you were injured in a traffic light failure it is a difficult case, but not impossible. It is very important to consult with an experienced car accident lawyer that is familiar with the law surrounding traffic light failures, Governmental immunities and alternative causes of outages.