Woodland Hills personal injury attorney Barry P. Goldberg id careful about lawsuits and claims involving alleged dangerous conditions of public property. Proving a “dangerous condition” is not always easy even if the condition actually caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to sue a public entity, the plaintiff has the burden to establish that the property was in a “dangerous condition” according to Government Code § 835 at the time of the accident. The trial courts and Courts of Appeal have been making the standard harder and harder to achieve. The California Supreme Court finally addressed the issue in Cordova v. City of Los Angeles (8/13/15) Cal.4th .
In Cordova, two cars collided and the impact from the collision forced a car over the curb and onto the grassy center median of Colorado Boulevard. That car struck one of several large magnolia trees planted in the median, approximately seven feet from the inside lane of the roadway. Four occupants were killed and one was severely injured. Plaintiffs sued the City alleging 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. It then entered summary judgment in favor of the City, ruling that the magnolia tree “does 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 Supreme Court granted plaintiffs’ petition for 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?” The Supreme Court reversed and liberalized the standard for defining “dangerous condition.”
Government Code §835 provides that a public entity may be held liable for such injuries “if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, [and] that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred.” In addition, the plaintiff must establish that either: (a) “[a] negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition,” or (b) “[t]he public entity had . . . notice of the dangerous condition . . . a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.”
A “ ‘[d]angerous condition’ ” is “a condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property or adjacent property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.” (§ 830.) Public property is in a dangerous condition within the meaning of section 835 if it “is physically damaged, deteriorated, or defective in such a way as to foreseeably endanger those using the property itself.” (Bonnano v. Central Contra Costa Transit Authority (2003) 30 Cal.4th 139, 148.) A condition is not dangerous “if the trial or appellate court, viewing the evidence most favorably to the plaintiff, determines as a matter of law that the risk created by the condition was of such a minor, trivial, or insignificant nature in view of the surrounding circumstances that no reasonable person would conclude that the condition created a substantial risk of injury when such property or adjacent property was used with due care in a manner in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.” (§ 830.2.)
The Courts of Appeal and in this case, in particular, held that the magnolia tree planted in the center median is not a dangerous condition as a matter of law because it neither caused defendant’s negligent driving in this particular case nor tended to cause motorists to drive negligently in general. The Supreme Court disagreed concluding that nothing in the statute requires plaintiffs to show that the allegedly dangerous condition caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident if the other elements can be shown. This resolves some of the confusion in this area where multiple causes combine to further cause injuries.
It is absolutely critical that your personal injury attorney be intimately familiar with the Government Code and cases interpreting “dangerous condition” in all serious injury cases involving public property.