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California Supreme Court overturns “no duty” rule in Cabral v. Ralph’s

And what we can all learn from this tragedy

In Maria Cabral v. Ralph’s Grocery Company, S178799, filed by the California Supreme Court on February 28, 2011, the Court held in favor of an accident victim and took a very restrictive view of the “no duty rule”.

What is the “no duty rule”?

According to the Findlaw dictionary, under the “no duty rule,” a defendant cannot be held liable for an injury if no duty is owed to the plaintiff.

Court can’t make up its mind

The case of Cabral arose from a motor vehicle collision in which a truck driver working for Ralph’s Grocery Company (“Ralph’s”) stopped his tractor-trailer rig alongside an interstate highway in order to have a snack. The plaintiff’s husband, decedent Adelelmo Cabral, for reasons unknown, veered off the highway and collided with the tractor-trailer, resulting in his death.

Perhaps if we all ask what is best (safe) for everyone and not just what is best for me, more of these tragedies can be avoided.

The case was tried to a jury. The jury found both parties to be negligent, but allocated 90% of the fault for the accident to Cabral and 10% of the fault to Ralph’s tractor trailer driver.

Under California’s comparative fault law, the trial court entered a judgment for Cabral’s widow for 10% of her damages.

Ralph’s appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Ralph’s owed no legal duty to Cabral.

The California Supreme Court unequivocally disagreed with the Court of Appeals and reversed and reinstated the trial court’s judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

Why this game of ping pong in the courts?

The Court noted that California law long ago established the general duty of each person to exercise, in his or her activities, reasonable care for the safety of others. The Court recognized exceptions to this firmly established general rule, but clearly indicated that they are extremely limited in scope and application.

The Court reasoned that, in order for the “no duty rule” to apply, it would have to find it categorically unforeseeable for drivers to lose control of their vehicles, leave a freeway and collide with any obstacle placed there.

Furthermore, the court stated that, in order for the “no duty rule” to apply, it would also have to find that public policy clearly demanded that truck drivers be universally permitted, without the possibility of civil liability for a collision, to take non-emergency breaks alongside freeway in area where regulations permitted only emergency parking.

And so the original judgement was upheld with the “no duty rule” approved by the appeals court being overturned.

Why does this matter to us?

Other than the few who may be facing something similar in our courts, is there anything the rest of us can walk away with regarding Cabral vs. Ralph’s?

In my job as a personal injury attorney, I deal with tragedy everyday and if it weren’t for the fact that I feel like I’m actually making our communities safer through the administration of justice, I might have made a career change long ago.

These tragic stories, as horrible as they are, can also help everyone do a little more to make our communities safer – if we take time to reflect on them. 

There are a lot more details to this story than what I’ve presented here, but suffice it to say, the big-rig driver thought he was acting responsibly. He pulled the truck over far enough and out of the way, yet history tells us waiting to find a rest stop would have been the safer decision for all concerned.

So being careful is not always enough for everyone involved. Ralph’s was held 10% liable for the decision that driver made to park his truck where he did.

But Cabral lost his life.

Perhaps if we all ask what is best (safe) for everyone and not just what is best for me, more of these tragedies can be avoided.

Let’s hope.


If you were involved in an accident in the Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore or San Luis Obispo areas and need a personal injury attorney, I can help get you full compensation.

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Tom Sokat

Tom is a personal injury attorney with over 30 years experience. He has two offices in the East Bay, one in Danville, another in Pleasanton, and one now in San Luis Obispo. He is passionate about being the champion for the little guy and getting them compensation for their injuries when due.


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