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California Supreme Court Clarifies Public Entity Liability Where Negligent Third Party Caused Plaintiff To Encounter Alleged Dangerous Condition

On Behalf of | Aug 18, 2015 | Firm News

On August 13, 2015, the California Supreme Court issued its ruling in matter of Cordova v. City of Los Angeles. At issue for the court was whether California Government Code § 835 required a plaintiff, in a tort claim against a public entity, to show that an alleged dangerous condition on a public roadway caused a third party’s negligence to continue with the claim against the public entity. Ultimately, the Court ruled such a nexus was not a requirement of the section 835.

This matter, on appeal from Second District Court of Appeals, concerned a fatal accident on August 27, 2008. At the time, Cristyn Cordova was driving her 2006 Nissan Maxima on Colorado Boulevard in Los Angeles. At the time she had several passengers, including: Toni – her sister, Andrew – her brother, Jason Gomez -her friend and Carlos Campos – her boyfriend. As the Nissan approached the intersection with Highland Avenue, a car driven by Rostislav Shnayder veered into the side of the Cordova vehicle causing it to lose control. The Cordova vehicle then spun and collided with a large magnolia tree, planted in the median of the roadway. As a result, all of the occupants except Campos were fatally injured.

After the accident the Cordova parents filed a wrongful death suit against Shnayder and the City of Los Angeles. The Cordovas alleged the trees in the median constituted a dangerous condition given their proximity to the roadway, and that this dangerous condition caused the deaths of their children. The City moved for summary judgment asserting that the trees did not constitute a dangerous condition and that the accident was caused by the negligence of Shnayder not any feature on the public street.  The City also argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because its liability hinged on “whether an aspect of public property somehow caused, facilitated, or encouraged the third party conduct.” The trial court agreed, entering summary judgment on behalf of the City finding that the magnolia tree did not constitute a dangerous condition of public property because it did not cause the accident that killed the Cordova children. The Cordovas appealed and the Second District affirmed the judgment finding:

With regard to third party conduct, “[a] public entity may be liable for a dangerous condition of public property even where the immediate cause of a plaintiff’s injury is a third party’s negligent or illegal act … if some physical characteristic of the property exposes its users to increased danger from third party negligence or criminality.” However, “ ‘ “[t]hird party conduct by itself, unrelated to the condition of the property, does not constitute a ‘dangerous condition’ for which a public entity may be held liable.” ‘ ” Rather, “[t]here must be a defect in the physical condition of the property and that defect must have some causal relationship to the third party conduct that injures the plaintiff.”

The Cordovas appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court where it was reversed. In its ruling the Supreme Court ruled section 835 has no such requirement. The Supreme Court went on to clarify causation of injuries and an alleged defective condition under section 835:

Consistent with the text of section 835 and with our holding in Ducey [25 Cal.3d. 707], Courts of Appeal have recognized that plaintiffs injured by a combination of a dangerous condition of property and third party conduct need show only that the condition proximately caused their injury; they need not show that the condition somehow caused the third party’s harmful conduct.

While the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, it also remanded the case back to Second District to rule on other challenges made by the City which were not addressed given the Second District’s interpretation of section 835.

The Supreme Court also outlined in its opinion that the decision did not mean, as the City feared, 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.”   The court then cited parts of sections 830 and 835 which limit public entity liability:

A public entity is not liable under subdivision (a) of Section 835 for injury caused by a condition of its property if the public entity establishes that the act or omission that created the condition was reasonable.” (§ 835.4, subd. (a).) Moreover, even when a public entity unreasonably decides to place a hard, fixed object on public property, the object is not a “dangerous condition” with the meaning of section 835 if it does not create a substantial risk that motorists driving in a reasonable manner will be injured by striking it. (§ 830.2.) Finally, the public entity is immune from liability if placement of the object was part of a plan or design for which the entity reasonably gave its discretionary approval. (§ 830.6; see Cornette v. Department of Transportation (2001) 26 Cal.4th 63.)

Ultimately, this decision provides a basis for plaintiffs to overcome a motion for summary judgment made by public entities where the harm is based on the combined causes of a third party’s negligence and an alleged dangerous condition.  While sections of the Government Code limit public entity liability, as long as the harm was proximately caused by the alleged dangerous condition, summary judgment is not appropriate.

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