California Court of Appeal Affirms Judgment in Favor of City Due to Public Entity Immunity

In a recent case before the California Court of Appeal, the court affirmed the judgment in favor of the City and County of San Francisco. The plaintiff, a forest ranger in Yosemite National Park, alleged he suffered injuries from a dangerous condition on public property. The plaintiff lived in a residential unit rented from the defendant, the City and County of San Francisco. Allegedly, the dangerous condition was the absence of a fire extinguisher from the plaintiff’s residence. The trial court held liability was precluded by the immunity provided to a public entity for failing to provide or maintain fire protection facilities or equipment.The incident in this case involved a kitchen fire in the plaintiff’s residence. The defendant provided tenants, including the plaintiff, fire extinguishers. Normally, the defendant collected and exchanged the fire extinguishers in the course of one day. But the fire extinguisher in this case had been picked up about one month before the day of the fire. While at the stove, the oil in the plaintiff’s skillet caught fire. He ran to retrieve the fire extinguisher, but it was missing.

The plaintiff unsuccessfully used a baking sheet to try to smother the flames. He then grabbed the skillet and tried to throw it out the door. The spring on the door forced the door to swing back and hit the pan, and burning grease splashed onto the plaintiff’s hand. As the plaintiff jumped down the stairs, the pan hit the stairs and splashed burning grease on his back.

In his complaint for damages for his resulting injuries, the plaintiff alleged that the absence of a fire extinguisher in the residence was a dangerous condition on public property. The defendant moved for summary judgment on various grounds. The defendant claimed they were immune from liability for failing to provide or maintain firefighting equipment under Government Code section 850.2. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court stated the summary judgment standard of review requires determining whether there is a genuine issue of a triable, material fact. In this case, the court first turned to the statute providing for public entity liability for injuries.

Government Code section 835 sets forth the elements necessary to prove the liability of public entities as property owners. To summarize, public entities are liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on their property if  the property was in a dangerous condition, the condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury that was incurred, and there was a negligent or wrongful act of an employee within the scope of his employment or the entity had knowledge of the dangerous condition and did not take measures to protect against the condition.

Section 830 defines a dangerous condition as including a condition creating a substantial risk of injury when the property is used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged two causes of action for injuries resulting from a dangerous condition on public property, one based on the creation of the condition and the other based on notice of and failure to protect against the condition. In moving for summary judgment, the defendant contended they were immune under section 850.2. The trial court agreed and granted their motion.

The immunity afforded a public entity is set forth in section 850.2 of the Government Code.   This section states that a public entity that has undertaken to provide fire protection services cannot be liable for an injury resulting from its failure to maintain or provide equipment or facilities.

The plaintiff alleged that this section does not apply because the public entity was acting as a landlord under a private rental agreement, and not in its governmental role.   In their analysis, the appeals court reviewed case law concerning the difference between public entity activity that was proprietary in character as compared to governmental. Those cases made clear the distinction between proprietary and governmental activities no longer applies. The court stated there is no distinction, and the plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

Next, the appellate court distinguished a case cited by the plaintiff in which the court did not apply section 850.2 immunity when the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from a fire. There, the court held the alleged dangerous condition stemmed from the storing of gasoline and other highly combustible chemicals on the premises in an unsafe manner. The lack of fire protection was not the dangerous condition itself. In the case at hand, there were no allegations of unsafe storage of flammable materials, or of defects in the plaintiff’s stove. The dangerous condition was the absence of a fire extinguisher.

The court held that the immunity provided by section 850.2 covers the alleged operational negligence that the plaintiff alleges occurred when the defendant failed to return or replace the fire extinguisher in his residence. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

At Sharifi Law, we help personal injury victims seek compensation for their injuries.  We can be reached by calling 866-422-7222. Our office provides a free initial consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Holds that Professional Negligence Claim Requires the Negligence Have Occurred in the Rendering of Professional Services, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 13, 2015

California Court of Appeals Says PG&E Failure to Trim Trees Case Can Move Forward, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, April 24, 2015

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