California Appeals Court Holds City Entitled to Design Immunity Defense for Intersection

The California Court of Appeal recently reversed a judgment in favor of the family of a pedestrian killed by the driver of a truck while crossing the street in a crosswalk in the City of Atwater.  The pedestrian’s family sued the driver and the City, alleging negligence and liability under Government Code section 8351 (dangerous condition of the intersection).

In this case, the City had asserted the affirmative defense of design immunity concerning the intersection where the accident occurred. The court assessed whether the City was entitled to the design immunity defense under Government Code section 830.6, which shields a government entity from liability for dangerous conditions.

The incident in this case took place when a 73-year-old woman was fatally injured after a truck struck her while she was crossing in the crosswalk.  The truck driver had made a left hand turn and did not see the pedestrian. The pedestrian’s survivors, her husband and five adult children, sued the truck driver and the City of Atwater for wrongful death. They alleged that the driver was negligent and that the City was liable under Government Code section 835 for the dangerous condition of the intersection.

Design plans for the intersection had been adopted in 2001.  The City had made a decision to adopt permissive phasing.  The plaintiffs had conceded that these 2001 plans had been reasonable when adopted.

A jury found that the driver had not been negligent, and the City alone was liable for the dangerous condition of the intersection. They awarded the plaintiffs nearly $3.2 million in damages.  The City moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on the ground that the design immunity defense shielded it from liability. The trial court denied the JNOV.

The appellate court stated that under the Government Claims Act, public entities are not liable for injuries, except as provided by statute. The Government Claims Act provides for liability when injuries are caused by dangerous conditions on property, those conditions created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury that took place, and an employee’s negligence or wrongful act caused the dangerous condition.  As an affirmative defense, public entities may set forth design immunity, under section 830.6.

To show design immunity, the public entity must show (1) a causal relationship between the accident and the plan, (2) discretionary approval of the plan before construction, and (3) evidence showing the reasonableness of the plan.  Since the parties here agreed that a causal relationship existed between the design and the fatality, the court turned to the second and third elements – discretionary approval and reasonableness.

Discretionary approval before construction can be shown through testimony from a former employee.  Here, the City showed that the 2001 plans included drawings of the intersection where the accident took place.  The appellate court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that proof of how a decision is made is required to show the exercise of discretionary authority.

Public entities that claim design immunity must show the reasonableness of the design or plan.  On review, a court must apply the deferential substantial evidence standard to assess whether public officials could have approved the challenged design.  The plaintiffs had conceded that the 2001 plans were reasonable when they were adopted.  The court stated that the city was therefore not required to prove reasonableness.

In conclusion, the court stated the elements of design immunity had been established. The City was immune from liability for a dangerous condition of the intersection. The court reversed the judgment against the City and remanded the case to the trial court.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm provide legal representation to victims and their families throughout Southern California as they pursue personal injury claims for compensation. Contact our office today for a consultation at 866-422-7222 or through our online form.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of City Because Injured Plaintiff Had Not Sufficiently Pled Facts Showing City’s Duty to Light Crosswalk, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 18, 2016

Appellate Court Holds Sham Pleading Did Not Apply in California Car Accident Case When Plaintiffs Were Unclear on Factual Basis for Liability, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 22, 2016

Contact Information