California Supreme Court Approves Public Entity Design Immunity Defense in Intersection Car Accident Case

In a recent case, the California Supreme Court clarified an issue central to public agency tort defense. A public entity may be liable for dangerous conditions on public property, including roads, but design immunity, an affirmative defense, can shield them.  The agency must demonstrate three requirements:  a causal relationship between the design and the accident, discretionary approval of the design, and evidence supporting the reasonableness of the plan. In this case, the Court analyzed the second element, approval of the design.

Plaintiff Randall Keith Hampton was seriously injured in a collision between his vehicle and another at the intersection of Miller and Cole Grade Roads in San Diego County.  While attempting a left turn, Mr. Hampton alleged he pulled forward from Miller Road onto Cole Grade Road.  Mr. Hampton and his wife sued defendant Robert Cullen, the driver of the other vehicle.  The Hamptons alleged Mr. Cullen’s negligence caused the accident.  Mr. Hampton suffered brain injuries and could not recall if he had stopped at the stop sign at the intersection. An on-scene officer of the California Highway Patrol concluded that Mr. Hampton caused the accident when he failed to stop at a stop sign on Miller Road before entering the intersection.

In the case before the Supreme Court, the issue was the Hamptons’ cause of action against San Diego County for maintaining an allegedly dangerous condition on public property. The Hamptons contended that the design and construction of the intersection at the accident location did not provide adequate visibility for a driver turning left from Miller Road onto Cole Grade Road.

The Hamptons presented evidence that an embankment covered with vegetation impaired visibility for drivers, and the County’s design drawings did not include the embankment as an impediment to visibility. The Hamptons’ claim centered on the allegation that the design failed to meet county design standards because it did not account for the embankment that impaired visibility.  The agency put forth evidence that drivers would remedy any vision impairment posed by the embankment by slowly moving forward after stopping at the stop line.

San Diego County moved for summary judgment on the grounds that they were entitled to design immunity. The Hamptons argued the agency had not met the requirements for discretionary approval because the design did not meet county standards. The trial court granted summary judgment to San Diego County, and the appellate court affirmed.

The Supreme Court stated that when evaluating the element of discretionary approval as an affirmative defense, trial courts should not consider whether the approving engineer was aware of design standards or that the design at issue satisfied those standards.  This rule reflects the legislative intent of avoiding a re-examination by the jury and a second-guessing of governmental design decisions at trial.  The court stated that if there were a re-examination of the public officials’ decision, it would defeat the authority given to the officials to act in the first place. The Court concluded that the public agency’s process of deliberating and decision-making is not to be second-guessed by the jury.

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court in favor of San Diego County.

At Sharifi Firm, our car accident attorneys represent individuals injured throughout Southern California. We provide a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Reverses Judgment for City as Design Immunity Does Not Apply, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, September 8, 2015

California Supreme Court Reverses Judgment for City Because Plaintiff Need Not Prove Dangerous Condition Caused Third-Party Conduct, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 20, 2015

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