Does a Company Have a General Duty to the Public for the Actions of Third Party Users of Its Products?

A California Appeals Court answered this question in the affirmative in certain circumstances, overturning a demurrer previously sustained by the Superior Court. The case involves Bird Rides, Inc., an electric motorized scooter rental business, who obtained a permit with the City of Los Angeles that allowed them to deploy a fleet of dock-less scooters throughout the City. In 2019, Sara Hacala, her husband, and daughter were holiday shopping after twilight, and Hacala tripped over a Bird scooter that was parked on a pedestrian thoroughfare and concealed behind a trash can. Hacala alleges that she suffered serious injuries as a result of the fall.

Hacala, her husband, and daughter, sued the City of Los Angeles and Bird in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Case No. 20STCV28230. Plaintiffs’ Complaint contained five causes of action: statutory negligence against the City (whose demurrer was upheld by the Court of Appeal), negligence against Bird, public nuisance against Bird, loss of consortium against defendants by Hacala’s husband, and negligent infliction of emotional distress against defendants by Hacala’s daughter. In sum, Plaintiffs’ theory against Bird was that the dock-less system created a tripping hazard, as Bird’s users would likely park them on the sidewalk in such a manner to obstruct the pedestrian right-of-way.

Bird challenged the pleading by demurrer, arguing Bird did not owe a duty to protect Hacala from the conduct of third parties absent a special relationship with the unknown user who abandoned the scooter in the hazardous location. Plaintiffs opposed the demurrer arguing that notwithstanding the absence of a special relationship, Defendants owed a general duty of care to refrain from exposing Plaintiffs to foreseeable risks by third party users. The trial court sustained the demurrer, denied leave to amend, and entered a judgment dismissing the action. Plaintiffs appealed.

The general rule governing duty is that “everyone is responsible… for injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.” Cal. Civ. Code § 1714. In regards to Plaintiffs’ negligence claim, the primary question was if Bird owed Hacala a duty arising out of 1) the company’s deployment of Bird scooters onto public thoroughfares and 2) Bird’s entrustment of its scooters to third parties.

Bird argued that the general rule did not apply here as Hacala did not suffer her injures as a result of the company’s conduct, but rather by the conduct of a third party. Bird argued that because they had no control over, nor contact with, the third party user who abandoned the scooter in a hazardous location, they had no special relationship with that user, and therefore no duty to protect Hacala from that user’s conduct.

The Court of Appeal was unpersuaded, holding that the Complaint sufficiently alleged facts to support that Bird’s management of its property contributed to the risk of harm that resulted in Hacala’s injuries. The holding relied on facts alleged in the Complaint that Bird knew or had reason to know that its scooters were parked in violation of the permit or in a hazardous location, and had a duty to inform its users to not abandon the scooters in those locations.

The Court of Appeal held that a special relationship need not be found because Bird had a duty to prevent injuries allegedly caused by Bird’s “want of ordinary care or skill in the management of [its] property.” So, by implementing a system through which scooters are left across the city at any point, the third-party’s conduct in this case was made possible and contributed to. The Court of Appeal emphasized that this holding was limited to the legal determination that Bird owed a general duty for the management of its property, and the determination of whether that duty was breached is for the trier of fact.

The authors would like to thank Law Clerk Morgan McCarthy for her help in preparing this alert.

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April 27, 2023