California Court Holds City Not Liable for Injuries to Girl Hurt on Swingset Because Structure Met Safety Guidelines, and City Had no Notice of Previous Incidents

In an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal analyzed whether a motion for summary judgment was properly granted in favor of the City of Inglewood in a premises liability lawsuit brought on behalf of a minor injured on a playset swing.   The issue before the court was whether the City had met its burden of proof on summary judgment, setting forth facts that negated the claim that a dangerous condition existed and that the City knew or should have known of its existence and failed to correct or remedy the situation.

Lilah Belser, 12 years old at the time, had been playing on a swing in a park in Inglewood. She moved to dismount, but her finger remained caught inside a link of the swing and was partially amputated. Through a guardian ad litem, Ms. Belser filed a claim for damages against the City of Inglewood, alleging the chain link openings were too big for use by minor children. She then filed a premises liability lawsuit on the ground that the size of the openings constituted a dangerous condition in violation of Government Code Section 835.

The City moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, finding that the City met its burden of showing the swing set did not constitute a dangerous condition.  The court also held that the declaration of Ms. Belzer’s expert did not create a triable issue of material fact. The court entered judgment in favor of the City, finding the City did not have actual or constructive notice that the swings were in a dangerous condition, since there had not been other complaints. Ms. Belser appealed.

The trial court stated their standard of review on summary judgment requires the same three-step analysis used by the trial court. First, the issues must be identified by the pleadings, and then the moving party must establish facts negating the opponent’s claim.  Finally, it must be determined whether the opposition demonstrated a triable, material factual issue remains.

Section 835 of the Government Code sets forth the method of imposing liability on a public entity. Plaintiffs must show that a dangerous condition existed on the public property, the condition proximately caused the injury, there was a reasonably foreseeable risk of that kind of injury, and the public entity knew or should have known of the condition in time to have taken measures to protect against it.

Section 830.2 further defines “dangerous condition” and does not include minor or trivial conditions that a reasonable person would not conclude created a substantial risk of injury.  The court stated that the intent of the governing statutes imposes liability only when there is a substantial danger that has not been apparent to those using the property in a foreseeable manner.

Turning to whether the alleged defective condition was trivial, the court stated that a property owner’s compliance with statutes and regulations may establish the absence of a hazardous condition. Similarly, the absence of other similar accidents can help determine whether a condition is dangerous.

In this case, the City’s evidence demonstrated it had complied with guidelines and standards regarding the playground equipment.  The City also provided evidence that a similar accident had not occurred in other parks or playgrounds, specifically those inspected by their qualified expert.

The appellate court stated that this sufficiently established no dangerous condition existed, and the City did not have actual or constructive notice that the size of the chain links was a substantial danger.  The City met their initial burden as the moving party to justify entering judgment in their favor.  Then, the court stated, Ms. Belser had relied on an expert who, the court stated, relied on “accepted standards” to show that the links had an opening that was excessive.  He never stated the standards that he used in evaluating the playground equipment.

The court stated that a party to a lawsuit cannot create a triable issue of fact through the use of an expert opinion that uses a self-serving conclusion without explanation or reasoning.  In support of his contention that the links represented a dangerous condition, the expert for Ms. Belser stated that the links were large enough for an adult finger to be penetrated.  The court stated that claims alleging dangerous conditions cannot rely on generalized allegations but must be specific.

Here, Ms. Belser was injured when she tried an unusual maneuver, and her finger was inadvertently inserted into a link of the chain.  The appellate court reiterated the City’s expert’s statement that the size of the chain used by the City reflected that of most of the 2,582 playgrounds he had examined. He also had not heard of a similar injury in 24 years of working in the industry.  The court stated that in fact larger openings may help a child’s fingers slip in and out without an injury.

According to the appellate court, the trial court did not have a basis to disregard the opinion of the City’s qualified expert and safety inspector. There had not been a contrary opinion from a safety expert on playgrounds.

The court affirmed the judgment, finding there was no basis to reverse the grant of summary judgment.

At Sharifi Firm, our Southern California premises liability attorneys provide personalized, efficient representation to injured individuals pursuing claims for compensation. To better understand your legal rights, contact our office. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

Man Injured in Fall on Steps Outside Apartment Not Entitled to Future Damages; California Court Holds Jury’s Award was Supported by Substantial Evidence, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, October 13, 2016

California Court of Appeal Affirms Holding in Favor of City Because Minor Defect in Sidewalk was Trivial,Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 15, 2016

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