In a recent case before the California Court of Appeal, the court addressed whether a church exposed invitees to an unreasonable risk of injury when it located an overflow parking lot across a busy street without a marked crosswalk or traffic signal. In this case, the court reviewed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the church on the ground that it did not owe a duty to the plaintiff under the circumstances. The court of appeals reversed the judgment in favor of the church, determining that the particular facts of this case, including the manner in which the church directed invitees to use the overflow lot, which they controlled, failed to show that it met its burden of showing a duty of care did not apply.
Grace Family Church (GFC) is located in Sacramento, on Marconi Avenue across from the Debbie Meyer Swim School. A five-lane road separates GFC from the school, and there is no marked crosswalk or traffic signal at the intersection of Marconi and Root Avenue, the nearest cross street. GFC had an agreement with the swim school to use the lot for overflow parking for church events.
On November 19, 2010, Aleksandr Vasilenko attended an event at GFC and was instructed by an attendant at the church to park across the street. Two attendants were on duty in the parking lot, and neither instructed drivers on where to park or how to cross Marconi Avenue.
After parking his vehicle, Mr. Vasilenko attempted to cross the two eastbound lanes and waited in the universal turn lane. While crossing the remaining two westbound lanes, Mr. Vasilenko was hit by a car and injured.
Mr. Vasilenko sued GFC for negligence and loss of consortium. He alleged that GFC created a foreseeable risk of harm due to the location of its overflow parking lot, and that it required invitees to cross Marconi Avenue but failed to protect against the risk of being injured.
GFC moved for summary judgment, alleging it did not have a duty to assist Mr. Vasilenko with crossing or instruct him how to safely cross a public street that was not in its ownership, possession, or control. The trial court granted the motion on the ground that GFC did not owe Mr. Vasilenko a duty to assist in safely crossing the street, which was not in its control. Mr. Vasilenko appealed.
The California Court of Appeal stated that determining whether the Church owed a duty of care to Mr. Vasilenko was essential to establishing a negligence action. Generally, everyone in California is responsible for injuries to others caused by a failure to use reasonable care. Factors set forth by the California Supreme Court, known as the Rowland factors, help to identify whether there is an exception to the general duty of care. These factors include the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury, and the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, among other things.
GFC was the party moving for summary judgment, and the appellate court stated that it had the burden to show that Mr. Vasilenko’s claims lacked merit. Mainly, GFC claimed it did not owe a duty to Mr. Vasilenko because he was walking across a public street not in its control or ownership. The court of appeal stated that whether GFC owned the property on which Mr. Vasilenko was injured was not dispositive of the issue of duty because the property was controlled by GFC in a manner that exposed him to an unreasonable risk of injury.
Generally, parties in ownership or possession of property have a duty to exercise ordinary care in managing the property and avoiding exposing others to unreasonable risks of harm. The court stated that the key fact is not that GFC did not control the public street, but that it controlled the location of its overflow parking lot. Here, GFC both controlled the location of the lot and required invitees who parked there to cross a busy street lacking a crosswalk or traffic signal.
GFC argued that California courts consistently decline to impose a duty on private landowners for injuries caused by third parties on premises not controlled or possessed by the landowner. But here, the court stated that Mr. Vasilenko’s argument was that GFC knew or should have known that invitees would cross Marconi Avenue, creating a foreseeable risk of harm to them. The court cited a case in which the duty of care encompassed a duty to avoid exposing persons to risks of injury offsite, if the property was maintained in a way that exposed persons to unreasonable risks of injury.
The court stated that GFC did not offer evidence showing the injury was not foreseeable or not actually suffered. Neither did GFC show that the management of its overflow parking lot was not closely connected to the injury. GFC failed to negate any of the negligence elements or Rowland factors. Instead, GFC focused on the mistaken belief that since Mr. Vasilenko was injured on public property, the church could not be held liable.
In conclusion, the court of appeal stated that GFC maintained and operated a parking lot in a location that required invitees to cross a busy street, and GFC also directed invitees to that lot when its own lot was full. Therefore, the court stated, GFC did not meet its burden of showing the general duty of care did not apply.
The court reversed the judgment dismissing the case in favor of GFC, remanding the case to the trial court with directions to vacate the order granting summary judgment.
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