California Supreme Court Reverses Judgment for City Because Plaintiff Need Not Prove Dangerous Condition Caused Third-Party Conduct

In a recent case before the California Supreme Court, the issue centered on government liability for injuries caused by a dangerous condition on property. Government Code section 835 provides that a public entity can be held liable for an injury if that injury is proximately caused by a dangerous condition on its property. The risk of injury must have been foreseeable, and the entity must have had notice of the danger such that it could have taken corrective measures. Sometimes, as in the case at hand, prior to the injury, a third party causes or contributes to the accident. The question before the court was whether the plaintiff must show that the dangerous condition caused the third-party conduct.

The facts of this case center on a motor vehicle accident in which a third party’s negligent driving caused another car to strike a tree situated on a center median owned by the City of Los Angeles. This collision with the tree killed or injured all the vehicle occupants. The parents of three of the five passengers, plaintiffs Antonio Cordova and Janis Cordova, sued the City, asserting that under Government Code section 835, the configuration of the roadway was a dangerous condition on public property.

Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the boulevard was in a dangerous condition due to the proximity of the magnolia trees to the travel portion of the roadway.  They alleged that the dangerous condition of the boulevard posed an unreasonable risk to motorists. The City of L.A. moved for summary judgment on the basis that the street and median were not dangerous, and the accident was due to third-party conduct, not a feature of public property.  After the plaintiffs submitted expert conclusions stating that the magnolia tree was a dangerous condition, the court entered summary judgment in favor of the City.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court judgment, holding that the magnolia tree was not a dangerous condition on public property, as a matter of law.  Upon review, the Supreme Court framed their issue:  was the government liable when a dangerous condition on property caused injuries suffered in an accident but did not cause the third-party conduct leading to the accident?

The Court reviewed Government Claims Act, section 835.  A plaintiff must show the following elements to hold a public entity liable for injuries:  the property was in a dangerous condition, the injury was caused by the condition, and the condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury of the type that was incurred. Additionally, the plaintiff must show notice on the part of the public entity, including sufficient time before the injury to take measures protecting against the condition.

The Supreme Court stated that nothing in Government Code section 835 requires the plaintiffs to show that the dangerous condition caused the third-party conduct before the accident.  The court acknowledged that a previous Court of Appeal decision had held that the presence of the condition on the property must have caused the third-party conduct leading to the accident. This case, according to the California Supreme Court, was distinguishable and did not change the rule that liability is found when the property has a defect, and there is a causal connection between the defect and the injury.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal erred in their finding that the magnolia tree was not a dangerous condition because it did not cause the third party’s negligent driving. Additionally, the court stated that the outcome of this lawsuit was not determined by their ruling. The court made clear that the case must continue to determine if a reasonable jury would find that the configuration of the roadway created a substantial risk of injury when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

The narrow holding, according to the California Supreme Court, is that a governmental entity is not immune from liability when it is alleged that a dangerous condition caused the injury but not the third-party conduct preceding the accident.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm 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 Court of Appeal Affirms Judgment in Favor of City Due to Public Entity Immunity, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, September 1, 2015

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