California Court of Appeal Rules No Liability for Running into Big, Obvious Objects

By editor on October 21, 2019

On October 16, 2019, in a decision no one would think would be necessary (but apparently is), the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District affirmed, in Dobbs v. City of Los Angeles, that the City of Los Angeles was not liable for injuries sustained when Plaintiff Cynthia Dobbs (“Plaintiff”) walked into a large bollard meant to protect the Los Angeles Convention Center from car bombs.

The Court of Appeal opened the decision with a brief, often thought, but seldom said out loud statement of law: “The rule deciding this case is look where you are going.”  The incident arose out of Plaintiff’s encounter with a round concrete pillar that was 17.5 inches wide and 17.5 inches tall. There were more than 50 bollards in front of the south hall of the convention center. The evidence showed that about two million people visit the convention center yearly. In the nine years before Plaintiff’s accident, no one filed an injury claim.

The City successfully invoked design immunity in its motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeal affirmed that the City had established all three element of design immunity. The first element, a causal relationship between the plan and the incident, was stipulated at oral argument before the trial court. The Court of Appeal found the City had established the second element, discretionary approval of the design before construction, as the City Engineer had approved and stamped the plans with his office’s official stamp. It affirmed that evidence of approval need not be provided by the actual people who approved the project. Rather, a public entity may rely on testimony regarding the custom and practice of approval from another witness who was not involved in the approval process. Finally, the Court of Appeal affirmed that the City had produced sufficient evidence to establish the third element, reasonableness of the public entity’s approval. It noted that the bollard was big, designed to stop cars, and obvious to pedestrians who looked where they were going. The Court of Appeal concluded, “There is more proof of reasonableness, but we need not recite it because reasonable minds would agree this bollard in this location was conspicuous and not a danger to pedestrians.”

The Court of Appeal closed its opinion with another wise observation: “Tort law incorporates common sense. When one walks into a concrete pillar that is big and obvious, the fault is one’s own.” And with that, judgment was affirmed for the City of Los Angeles.

A copy of the short four-page decision (which is very much worth a read) can be found here.

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