California Court of Appeals Reverses Judgment for City as Design Immunity Does Not Apply

Recently, in an action for a dangerous condition on public property, the California Court of Appeals held there was a material dispute of fact regarding whether an intersection and crosswalk posed a risk of injury to a pedestrian. In this case, the court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment. The appellate court addressed the government’s affirmative defense of design immunity and held that “add-ons” that are installed after the project is approved are not part of government design immunity.

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Griselda Castro and her two children, as well as two other children in her care, were walking in a crosswalk. Ms. Castro pressed the button to activate the warning beacon before crossing, and she saw a vehicle stop.   She and the children began crossing the street and were struck by a van. The van driver did not see the warning beacon, nor did he see Ms. Castro and the children. Ms. Castro and the children sustained serious injuries upon impact.

Safety improvements had been made to this intersection and crosswalk as part of a city project. While these improvements included warning signage on sidewalks, and yellow yield lines on the street, a pedestrian warning beacon had been listed in the project plans but never approved. After completing the project, the pedestrian warning beacon was purchased and installed.

The City of Thousand Oaks moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the City maintained discretionary authority to approve the beacon warning design, and that the complaint was barred by the design immunity provisions.

In response, Ms. Castro argued that the beacon was not part of the approved project design. Additionally, triable facts remained regarding whether the intersection was a dangerous condition.

The trial court ruled that the design immunity statute barred the action, that the warning beacon was an additional safety feature, and that it would have increased the safety of the intersection design.

The court stated the elements of a claim based on a dangerous condition on property. A public entity is liable for an injury caused by a dangerous condition if that condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury sustained, and the entity had notice (actual or constructive) of the condition before the injury, so that it could have taken preventative measures.

The appellate court stated that the affirmative defense of design immunity, available to public entities, applies when the plan or design has been approved before construction or improvement. Design immunity requires that a public entity, or employee, show a causal relationship between the design and the accident, discretionary approval of the plan or design, and substantial evidence showing the reasonableness of the plan or design.

The City argued that the City Engineer had discretionary power to approve the warning beacon addition. Ms. Castro contended that the Engineer’s authority does not include the power to “approve” a traffic control plan, according to the meaning of California design immunity law.

While the City claimed that the Engineer had the power to approve the beacon, it did not provide a legal source of this power. The appellate court stated that the City Engineer was not expressly granted discretionary authority to approve the plan or design for a traffic control device.

Simply because the City Engineeer can purchase and install traffic control devices does not grant design immunity, which in this case includes the discretionary authority to approve a warning beacon design. Purchasing and installing the beacon as a safety addition does not create an implied design immunity. The court held that the City’s reliance on its municipal code, and not an actual plan or design in place, for design immunity would “erase years of California jurisprudence.”

Regarding the dangerous condition of public property, the court stated that the City cannot expose pedestrians to an increased risk of harm. Here, the City’s traffic surveyor reported unusual conditions that affected the boulevard, including heavy traffic volume and pedestrian crossings at random intervals.  After Ms. Castro activated the warning beacon, she looked ahead and guided the children in to the crosswalk. The court stated that, while Ms. Castro may have failed to look for cars, that is for the trier of fact to decide. In addition, the City had notice that the crosswalk posed a risk to pedestrians, based on sting operations.

In conclusion, the court stated the design immunity rule prevents a jury from reweighing the same factors the governmental entity considered when approving the plan or design. But there must be an actual plan or design approval, and here the City did not show design immunity as a matter of law. It is a question for the jury whether, as Ms. Castro contended, the warning beacon lulled pedestrians into thinking it was safe to cross the street. Since reasonable minds could differ as to whether, under a totality of circumstances standard, the crosswalk posed a substantial risk of injury, summary judgment could not be granted. The judgment was reversed.

At Sharifi Firm, we represent individuals throughout Southern California who have been injured in pedestrian accidents. Contact us for a free consultation by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeal Affirms Judgment in Favor of City Due to Public Entity Immunity, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, September 1, 2015

California Court of Appeals Says PG&E Failure to Trim Trees Case Can Move Forward, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, April 24, 2015

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