California Court of Appeal Held County Not Entitled to Summary Judgment When Triable Issues Remain Regarding Cause for Tree Fall

The California Court of Appeal recently upheld the trial court’s denial of a county’s motion for summary judgment in a California personal injury lawsuit involving the Government Code “natural condition immunity” claimed by San Mateo County after a 72-foot diseased tree fell on a sleeping child’s tent, causing catastrophic injuries.  The court analyzed whether the campground area had been improved, since that would defeat the natural condition immunity provided to the County by Government Code section 831.2.

Government Code section 831.2 is known as the “natural condition immunity.”  It states that neither a public entity nor a public employee may be held liable for injuries caused by natural conditions of unimproved public property.  The issue in this case was whether there were triable issues of fact regarding whether the property was “unimproved.”

The campground where the child was injured was in San Mateo County Memorial Park, owned by the County.  Over 499 wooded acres make up the park, with trails and campsites that have been cleared of trees. The campground was included in a “developed area” that the County inspected.

After the accident, the plaintiff (through his guardian ad litem) brought a claim for premises liability and a dangerous condition of public property.  His allegations included the fact that the tree had structural defects and that the County negligently failed to maintain the campsite, warn of the danger, and prevent the tree from falling, despite knowing of the risk of injury.

Moving for summary judgment, the County argued that under section 831.2, it was immune as a matter of law.  The tree that injured the plaintiff, according to the County, was a natural condition.  The County argued that despite the presence of bathrooms, showers, and other amenities in the park, the property was unimproved.  In opposition, the plaintiff argued that there had been man-made changes to the campgrounds that contributed to the tree’s infection and ultimate failure.

The trial court found there was a triable issue of fact regarding whether the property was unimproved, and it denied the County’s motion.  Since the campsite had been improved by clearing and constructing a fire pit and picnic tables, the County was not entitled to immunity.  In support of his argument, the plaintiff introduced expert declarations detailing how construction activity affected the tree’s health, making it susceptible to the infection that led to its fall.

In their discussion, the court of appeal stated that whether the lower court reached the right result is to be determined by assessing whether the record shows no triable issue of material fact.  First, the court turned to the natural condition immunity set forth in section 831.2.  The court stated that the two questions regarding this statute include whether a condition is “natural” and whether property is “unimproved” public property.  In this case, whether the condition of property had been improved was central to the case.

The court analyzed the location of the injury versus the location of the natural condition.  The tree in this case was growing underneath the campsites, and, according to the court, the trunk of the tree was closer to the improved accident site than in other cases.  The appellate court noted that a triable issue of fact remained concerning whether the tree was growing in the same location as the accident site.

Next, the court addressed whether the amenities within the campground rendered the area “improved.” Generally, the court stated that campsites with amenities are considered to be improved.  While the County argued that the amenities in this case were trivial, the court disagreed.  When a campsite undergoes significant artificial physical change, it is not in a natural state.  The court also noted that the plaintiff’s evidence raised triable issues of fact regarding whether the campsite had been unimproved.  His evidence showed that the County partially cleared the area of trees, installed a paved road, and altered the terrain by removing mulch.

Finally, the court stated that there were triable issues as to whether the artificial changes made to the campsite contributed to the tree’s dangerousness.  Here, the court stated that a trier of fact could find that man-made changes to the area near the accident affected the tree’s dangerousness and were causally linked to its falling.  Again, based on the plaintiff’s expert declarations, there was evidence that human conduct, in the form of improvements to the area, weakened the tree and led to its falling.  The court denied the petition for a writ of mandate, seeking to overturn the summary judgment ruling. Triable issues of fact remained as to whether the property was “unimproved.”

At Sharifi Firm, we represent injured individuals in personal injury claims for compensation throughout Southern California. Our priority is maximizing compensation on behalf of our clients, and we provide personal attention and compassionate service.  To schedule a free consultation with a skilled premises liability attorney, call our office at 1-866-422-7222 or reach us online.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Holds Jury Could Reasonably Conclude Plaintiff’s Allegation of Causation in Tree Trimming Accident was Speculative and Evidence Supported Their Verdict in Favor of Defendant, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 11, 2017

California Court Holds State Owed no Duty to Protect Child From Falling Tree at Campsite, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, April 4, 2016

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