California Supreme Court Holds Public Entities Can be Found Liable for Dangerous Condition of Public Property Even if Third Party Conduct Precipitated the Accident

By lfsuser on August 17, 2015

On August 13, 2015, the California Supreme Court held in Cordova, et al. v. City of Los Angeles that public entities are not “categorically immune” from liability where it is alleged that dangerous condition of public property caused the plaintiff’s injuries, but did not cause the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.

This case arises out of a fatal traffic accident in Eagle Rock, a neighborhood in the City of Los Angeles, on August 27, 2008. That night, Cristyn Cordova, who was pregnant, was driving her 2006 Nissan Maxima on Colorado Boulevard. In the car were Cristyn’s sister, Toni-Marie; her brother, Andrew; her friend, Jason Gomez, and her boyfriend, Carlos. In the next lane was Rostislav Shnayder, who was driving a 2004 Mitsubishi Eclipse. As Cristyn approached Hermosa Avenue, Rostislav’s vehicle moved into Cristyn’s lane and hit her vehicle. Cristyn’s vehicle veered to the left, climbed onto the center median island and ultimately collided with a large magnolia tree which was at the end of the center median. Cristyn, her unborn child, her sister, her brother, and her friend all died as a result of the collision with the tree. Cristyn’s boyfriend, Carlos, was seriously injured.

Cristyn’s parents, Antonio and Janis Cordova, filed a wrongful death action against the City of Los Angeles, among other defendants. They alleged that Colorado Boulevard was in a dangerous condition because the magnolia trees on the center median were too close to the travel portion of the roadway, posing an unreasonable risk to motorists who might lose control of their vehicles.

The City filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Colorado Boulevard and the center median were not a dangerous condition and that the accident was caused by third party conduct, not any feature of public property. In response, Plaintiffs submitted declarations from a number of experts who opined that the proximity of the magnolia trees to the travel portion of the roadway presented a significant and foreseeable danger to the public. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the City, ruling that the magnolia tree did not constitute a dangerous condition of public property because, among other things, it did not cause the accident that killed the Cordova children.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It concluded that the City was entitled to summary judgment because the magnolia tree did not constitute a dangerous condition as a matter of law and that the configuration of the roadway was not a dangerous condition because nothing about Colorado Boulevard would cause a person driving at or near the speed limit to veer into the magnolia trees.

The California Supreme Court limited its review to a single question: May a government entity be liable where it is alleged that a dangerous condition of public property existed and caused the injury plaintiffs suffered in an accident, but did not cause the third party conduct that led to the accident? The Court answered this question with a “yes”.

In arriving at its decision, the Supreme Court looked to the wording of Government Code section 835, which sets for the exclusive conditions by which a public entity can be held liable for a dangerous condition of public property. Government Code section 835 requires, among other things, that a public entity’s property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury and that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition. The Court noted that nothing in the statute required a plaintiff to show that the alleged dangerous condition caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident in addition to showing that the dangerous condition proximately caused plaintiff’s injury. The Supreme Court then reviewed a series of cases, including Ducey v. Argo Sales Co. (1979) 25 Cal.3d 77, Lane v. City of Sacramento (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 1337, Cole v. Town of Los Gatos (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 749, and Zelig v. County of Los Angeles (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1112 to confirm that no prior court had imposed this dual causation requirement.

Despite this holding, the Court, however, clarified that its “conclusion does not mean . . . that a public entity may be held liable whenever a plaintiff is injured after a third party’s conduct causes the plaintiff’s vehicle to strike a hard, fixed object on public property close to a road, such as a light post, a telephone pole, a traffic light, a stop sign, or a bridge abutment.” It then cited three statutes upon which public entities can rely in order to demonstrate no liability:

  1. Government Code section 835.4, which provides that a public entity is not liable for a dangerous condition of public property if the public entity establishes that the act or omission that created the condition was reasonable;
  2. Government Code section 830.2, which provides that a condition of property is not “dangerous” if it does not create a substantial risk of injury; and
  3. Government Code section 830.6, which provides public entities with design immunity for those conditions of property which were part of a plan or design for which the entity reasonable gave its discretionary approval

The Court concluded that the Court of Appeal must decide whether the Plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue as to whether the configuration of Colorado Boulevard and the center median constituted a dangerous condition and whether there was sufficient evidence to establish that decedent’s fatal injuries were proximately caused by that configuration.

While the California Supreme Court did not reach the merits of whether Colorado Boulevard or its center median with magnolia trees constituted a dangerous condition, this decision is instructive in regards to litigating future dangerous condition of public property cases which arise out of third party conduct. Public entities may no longer view third party conduct as a definite defense to liability. Instead, public entities should treat third party conduct cases like those without third party conduct. Public entities must carefully examine the condition that is claimed to be dangerous and construct a substantive defense that considers all factors which influence a finding of a “dangerous condition” as a matter of law, such as prior similar accidents and applicable standards and regulations. Public entities should also be proactive in maintaining and gathering evidence that may support a finding that an act or omission is reasonable or a design immunity defense. From a risk-management perspective, public entities should begin considering and reviewing what risks may be posed by roadside objects – including trees and other landscaping – and whether those objects play a functional (as opposed to a decorative) role in regards to the roadway.

A full copy of the opinion can be found here.

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