California Court Holds Government Not Liable for Fatality Caused by Alleged Dangerous Condition of Public Property Due to Lack of Control

Recently, the California Court of Appeal held that the defendant in a personal injury lawsuit could not be held liable because they did not own the property on which an alleged dangerous condition caused the victim’s death. California law requires that to be liable for a dangerous condition, one must own or control the property at the time of the injury.  In this particular case, the property was allegedly owned by the government, and the dangerous condition existed in the remnant of what was called Dennett Dam, near the Tuolumne River.  The court found that since the government did not own the dam for the purposes of liability, they could not be found liable for the plaintiffs’ loss.

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Keith Goddard and Kirsty Monroe, the children of Leonard Goddard, sued the State of California after their father drowned in the Tuolumne River, downstream from the former Dennett Dam. Mr. Goddard was 56 years old at the time of the fatal accident, and he was caught in a current over a breach in the remnant of the Dam.  The plaintiffs alleged that the State and other public entities were liable for their father’s death, due to a dangerous condition of public property, under Government Code section 835.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) answered the complaint on behalf of the State and moved for summary judgment.  They contended they could not be liable under section 835 because they did not control or own the dam remnant. They also alleged that since Mr. Goddard’s death was caused by a natural condition, they were immune from liability under section 831.2.

The trial court granted DFW’s summary judgment motion but denied DWR’s motion.  Keith Goddard and Kristy Monroe appealed the judgment in DFW’s favor.

The plaintiffs in this case sought to impose liability under section 835, which holds that a public entity may be liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on its property.  Property is further defined as property “owned or controlled” by the public entity. Courts have held that a public entity cannot be held liable under section 835 for dangerous conditions on a property it does not own or control.

The appellate court ruled that DFW was entitled to natural condition immunity, under section 831.2.  Furthermore, alternatively, DFW established that it did not own or control the dam remnant.  Natural condition immunity was enacted to make sure public entities were not discouraged from providing public access to recreational areas, due to the expense of being sued and maintaining safe conditions.

Section 831.2 states that public entities are not liable for injuries caused by natural conditions on unimproved public property.  This immunity applies even if the public entity had knowledge of the dangerous condition and failed to warn against it.  In this case, Mr. Goddard’s drowning resulted from a water condition that could be created by a man-made dam, or by nature.  The dam in this case had deteriorated to the point where DWR did not have jurisdiction over it.

Regarding control, the court stated that the dangerous condition was the breach in the dam that caused a current to run over the center of the dam remnant.  While a fish ladder had created the formation of a dangerous condition, the court stated that the dam’s owner, and not DFW, was responsible for the maintenance of the ladder.  DFW did not maintain control following the installation of the fish ladder.  Here, DFW did not have jurisdiction over the riverbed and did not “own” it according to the liability rule under section 835.  It did not control the dam remnant, and therefore the grant of summary judgment in favor of DFW was proper.

The court affirmed the judgment in favor of DFW.

At Sharifi Firm, our car accident attorneys provide guidance and representation to individuals injured throughout Southern California. We provide a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Holds that Mixed Use Bikepath Provides Trail Immunity to UC Regents for Personal Injury Claims Based on Condition of Path, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, January 14, 2016

California Supreme Court Reverses Judgment for City Because Plaintiff Need Not Prove Dangerous Condition Caused Third-Party Conduct, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 20, 2015

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