Woodland Hills personal injury attorney Barry P. Goldberg is frequently consulted concerning fall accidents and biking accidents in and around Santa Monica. In a recent unpublished case, the Court expanded the immunities available to public entities to include the “paths” adjacent to Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park which might otherwise be considered “sidewalks” for purposes of assessing liability. The immunity asserted by Santa Monica was for the rarely used “trail immunity.” (Scott v. City of Santa Monica (Sept. 30, 2015))
In the recent case, plaintiff was injured when he tripped over a raised edge along a decomposed granite path along Palisades Park in Santa Monica. He sued the City of Santa Monica on the theory that his injuries were caused by a dangerous condition of public property, but the City obtained summary judgment on the basis of trail immunity (Gov. Code, § 831.4, subd. (b)). Plaintiff contended on appeal that the trial court erred because the path in issue was a sidewalk, not a “trail” within the scope of the immunity statute. The Court of Appeal disagreed and affirmed the judgment.
The sole disputed fact material to the issue of trail immunity was whether “[t]he purpose of the path was and is for recreational use by walkers, joggers, and runners, and by others using the park to gain access to the beach and trails below.” (I have attached a Google Street View photo of the general area for reference.) The City argued that “The path is for recreational use for walkers, joggers, runners and others using the park to gain access to the beach and trails below.” Plaintiff disagreed and stated that “The subject pathway is a sidewalk, running parallel to Ocean Avenue and being prohibited from bicycle use.” (What do you think?)
In a clever attempt to sway the trial court, plaintiff attached a photo to his opposition of a man with a brief case using the “path” more like a traditional sidewalk. The Court of Appeal addressed the alleged dispute, as follows: “Plaintiff makes much of the fact that a man in a photo is seen walking with a briefcase in the park; Plaintiff therefore contends the path is more of a sidewalk than a path. There is, however, no reason to believe that someone with a briefcase cannot walk through a park. There is also no reason to believe that a park cannot be used as a means of getting to and from a location that would require a briefcase.”
Section 831.4 provides, in pertinent part: “A public entity, public employee, or a grantor of a public easement to a public entity for any of the following purposes, is not liable for an injury caused by a condition of: [¶] (a) Any unpaved road which provides access to fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, riding, including animal and all types of vehicular riding, water sports, recreational or scenic areas and which is not a (1) city street or highway or (2) county, state or federal highway or (3) public street or highway of a joint highway district, boulevard district, bridge and highway district or similar district formed for the improvement or building of public streets or highways. [¶] (b) Any trail used for the above purposes.”
“The plainly stated purpose of immunity for recreational activities on public land is to encourage public entities to open their property for public recreational use, because ‘the burden and expense of putting such property in a safe condition and the expense of defending claims for injuries would probably cause many public entities to close such areas to public use.’” (Armenio v. County of San Mateo (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 413, 417 (Armenio).)
Trail immunity under section 831.4, subdivision (b) applies to both trails that are used for the activities listed in subdivision (a), and to trails that are used solely for access to such activities, without regard to whether or not the trail is paved. (Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1074, 1078 (Amberger-Warren).) “The words ‘trail’ and ‘path’ are synonymous,” and “under the express terms of subdivision (b), any trail is included in the exemption.” (Carroll v. County of Los Angeles (1997) 60 Cal.App.4th 606, 609.) “Courts have since concluded section 831.4 applies to any trail or path specifically put aside and developed for recreational uses, without regard to its unnatural condition or urban location, and have consistently defined paved, multi-purpose paths located in metropolitan areas as ‘recreational trails’ for purposes of section 831.4, subdivision (b) immunity.” (Montenegro v. City of Bradbury (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 924, 931 (Montenegro).)
“Whether the property is a trail depends on a number of considerations, including accepted definitions of the property [citations], the purpose for which the property is designed and used, and the purpose of the immunity statute [citation].” (Amberger-Warren, supra, 143 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1078–1079.) “The fact that a trail has a dual use—recreational and nonrecreational—does not undermine section 831.4, subdivision (b) immunity.” (Montenegro, supra, 215 Cal.App.4th at p. 932.)
“The purpose for which a trail is used is ordinarily viewed as a factual issue, but it becomes a question of law if only one conclusion is possible.” (Armenio, supra, 28 Cal.App.4th at p. 418.) The Court of Appeal concluded: the path in controversy constitutes a recreational trail within the scope of section 831.4, subdivision (b), thus affording the City immunity.
It is absolutely critical to consult with a law firm that is intimately familiar with all the public entity immunities if you or an acquaintance is seriously injured on public property.