NEW CASE ALERT: Supreme Court Rules on Public Agency Liability Case

Carlsbad, California – August 13, 2015.  On August 13, the California Supreme Court issued its decision on Cordova v. City of Los Angeles.  The Court determined that a public agency may be liable where an accident caused by third party criminal conduct causes plaintiff’s vehicle to strike fixed objects such as trees and light poles on public property.

The Case:

Cristyn Cordova was driving her 2006 Nissan Maxima westbound in the inside lane of Colorado Boulevard, with four passengers in the car. As they approached Highland View Avenue, a vehicle driven by Rostislav Shnayder veered into the side of Cristyn’s car. Both vehicles were traveling well above the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

The impact of the collision forced Cordova’s Nissan over the curb and onto the grassy center median of Colorado Boulevard. Out of control and spinning counterclockwise, the car struck one of several large magnolia trees planted in the median, approximately seven feet from the inside lane of the roadway. Although the car’s occupants were wearing seat belts, four of the passengers were killed, and one was badly hurt. Shnayder was arrested at the scene. A jury later convicted him of four counts of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. (Pen. Code, § 192, subd. (c)(2).)

Plaintiffs filed a wrongful death action against the City of Los Angeles (the City) among other defendants. As to the City, plaintiffs alleged that Colorado Boulevard was in a dangerous condition because the magnolia trees on the grassy median were too close to the travel portion of the roadway, posing an unreasonable risk to motorists who might lose control of their vehicles. Plaintiffs claimed that this dangerous condition proximately caused their decedents’ fatal injuries.

The City moved for summary judgment, asserting that the undisputed facts showed that the street and median were not dangerous and that the accident was caused by third party conduct, not by any feature of public property. In response, plaintiffs submitted evidence 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 agreed with the City and entered summary judgment, 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.

Plaintiff petitioned to the California Supreme Court, which granted review limited to the following 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?” Reversing the trial court and court of appeal, the Supreme Court answered that question in the affirmative, finding that a public entity may be liable for injuries caused by collisions with fixed objects such as median trees, light poles and other fixtures, even where the accident is initially triggered by third party criminal misconduct.

The Court held that a public entity gains no immunity from liability simply because, in a particular case, the dangerous condition of its property combines with a third party’s negligent conduct to inflict injury. Rather, Government Code Section 835 only requires a plaintiff to show that the 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” (emphasis by the Court). While plaintiffs were required to show that a dangerous condition of property — that is, a condition that creates a substantial risk of injury to the public — proximately caused the fatal injuries their decedents suffered as a result of the collision with Shnayder’s car, they were not required to show that the allegedly dangerous condition also caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.

The Supreme Court wrote that its ruling did not make a public entities liable every time third party criminal conduct caused someone’s vehicle to strike a 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. Public entities could still escape liability if they established, for example, that the act or omission (the tree placement) was reasonable (§ 835.4, subd. (a).); or if the condition did not create a substantial risk that motorists driving in a reasonable manner would be injured by striking it (§ 830.2.); or if the placement of the object was part of a plan or design for which the entity reasonably gave its discretionary approval (§ 830.6).

The case will return to the court of appeal, which must now decide whether plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue as to whether the configuration of the roadway was in fact a dangerous condition. That is, the court must determine whether, based on the evidence presented, a jury could reasonably conclude that the configuration of the roadway created a substantial risk of injury when the roadway was used with due care in a manner in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used. (§ 830.) The court must also decide whether plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence that the configuration of the roadway was a proximate cause of the fatal injuries suffered by their decedents. The Supreme Court expressed no view with respect to these questions. Rather, the Supreme Court emphasized that this decision is limited to its holding that a governmental entity is not categorically immune from liability where it is alleged that a dangerous condition of property caused the injury that the plaintiffs suffered in an accident, but did not cause the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.

Take Away:

This decision is disappointing since it was an opportunity for our court to limit government liability in cases where its property did nothing to precipitate or trigger the events leading to injury, especially where criminal or grossly negligent conduct is involved. However, this case is also a reminder of the importance of other public entity defenses, such as design immunity found in Section 830.6. Agency design staff should be trained in the elements of the immunity and make sure it follows its requirements in the design and approval of its public works.

 

If you have any questions regarding this article or would like a copy of the opinion, please do not hesitate to contact the author, Neal S. Meyers, Meyers Fozi, LLP at NMeyers@meyersfozi.com.

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