In Meddock v. County of Yolo (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 3 Dist., September 10, 2013), a California court of appeal determined that a county cannot be held liable for an injury caused by a naturally occurring tree on unimproved property which fell on a person. The court ruled that because Government Code Section 831.2 provides immunity for an injury caused by a natural condition on unimproved property, regardless of the location where the injury occurred, the county was not liable.
Dwight Meddock was launching a boat on a paved boat ramp at a park operated by Yolo County ("County") on the Sacramento River, when part of a nearby tree broke loose and fell on him causing injury. Meddock filed suit against the County, asserting that he was injured while "lawfully upon an improved portion" of the public property, and that his injury was caused by the county's failure to properly maintain the area's dead and dying trees.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the County, finding that Meddock's injuries were caused by trees on unimproved, rather than improved property, and that the County was therefore immune. Meddock appealed.
Government Code Section 831.2 provides public entities with immunity from "an injury caused by a natural condition of any unimproved public property." This case specifically hinged on the use of the word "caused," the court said.
The injury occurred on improved property, the boat ramp paved by the county, but it was caused by the nearby naturally occurring tree on unimproved property. Significantly, Section 831.2 includes the word "caused," but not the word "occurred." Therefore, the court ruled that the County was immune from liability because Meddock's injury was caused by a natural condition of the unimproved property.
Further, the court investigated the legislative history of Section 831.2 and found it was intended to promote the public use of unimproved governmental property, reasoning that public agencies might prohibit such use if they risked liability for these types of injuries.
Because Meddock's injuries were caused by decaying natural trees located on unimproved property, the County was immune from liability and the judgment was affirmed.