In a Court of Appeal case, the court analyzed the applicable Government Claims Act natural condition immunity statute in a case involving an accident at a campground in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Turning to policy considerations, the court stated that providing immunity for public places, particularly recreational areas, allows for increased availability without the potential liability of defending claims for injuries. Here, the court addressed whether the lower court committed an error in granting summary judgment in favor of the government.
Alana M., a minor, was camping with her family in Portola Redwoods State Park. The park is owned by the State and managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). The State has built campsites throughout the park, including Portola Campground. Tanoak trees, indigenous to the area, surround the campground.
Alana was three years old at the time of the accident underlying this case. While the family was sleeping in their tent at a campsite in the Portola Campground, Alana was struck by a tree that fell on the campsite. She suffered brain damage. The tree was 86 to 96 feet tall, and it had snapped and broken three feet from the ground.
Through her guardian ad litem, Alana sued the State, alleging premises liability and a dangerous condition of public property. She contended that the tree had identifiable defects. She also alleged that the State negligently failed to maintain the campsite and negligently failed to warn of the danger of falling trees. She contended the State knew or should have known of the structural defect of the tree that injured her.
The State argued it was immune from liability under section 831.2 and moved for summary judgment. They contended that Alana had been injured by a natural condition of unimproved public property. After reviewing the evidence, including Alana’s argument that there was a dispute of fact as to whether the tree that fell on her was on improved or unimproved property, the trial court granted summary judgment, and Alana appealed.
The court of appeals turned to section 831.2, which provides immunity for injuries caused by natural conditions on unimproved public property, such as lakes, streams, rivers, or beaches. The legislative purpose of enacting section 831.2 of the Government Claims Act was to support the availability of public areas in situations when the potential of defending claims for injuries may cause them to close. Furthermore, the natural condition immunity applies even when the public entity knew of a dangerous condition. In the same vein, the appellate court stated the rule that improving a portion of a park area does not remove the immunity from the unimproved areas.
The court stated that the Government Claims Act itself does not define a precise standard for determining when a public property in its natural state ceases to be “unimproved.” Additionally, the immunity applies unless an improvement (or human conduct) contributed to the danger associated with a natural condition. The main issue is the character of the property at its location, not at the location of the injury.
Here, Alana did not dispute that her injury resulted from a tree falling, a natural condition under section 831.2. There was no evidence of an artificial change in the condition of the tree. For example, the court stated, Alana did not present evidence that human conduct contributed to the danger of the tree, such as by leveling the area of the campsites. Since the evidence showed that the tree that fell was a natural condition of “any unimproved property” under section 831.2, the natural condition immunity applied.
The court also rejected Alana’s argument that by improving campsites, the dangerousness of the tree increased because there was a higher likelihood that humans would be hurt when a tree fell in the area. If this argument prevailed, the court stated it would thwart the enjoyment of public lands by discouraging the construction of improvements such as rest rooms and campsites. The court stated there is a risk associated with spending time among the trees of Portola Redwoods State Park, since a tree may fall. She had not shown that the tree that fell was on improved property.
In conclusion, the court stated Alana had not shown that there was a physical change in the condition of the property where the tree grew or that human conduct contributed to the danger of the tree.
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
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