Court of Appeal Upholds Judgment in Favor of County Based on Design Immunity Defense

A driver of a vehicle that collided with another vehicle at an intersection brought a lawsuit against a county asserting a claim of dangerous condition of public property.  The court of appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court that the driver’s claims were barred by the county’s affirmative defense of design immunity.  (Hampton v. County of San Diego (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 4 Dist., July 26, 2013).

Facts

Randall Keith Hampton (“Hampton”) was driving a vehicle that collided with another vehicle at an intersection located in the County of San Diego (“County”).  Hampton and his wife not only sued the other driver, but also the County.  They alleged dangerous conditions of public property at the intersection in Valley Center where the accident occurred.  They asserted County had a duty “to ‘properly and safely plan, design, build, construct, operate, manage, maintain, direct, control, sign and supervise the roadways at the intersection of Cole Grade Road and Miller Road.’”  The Hamptons claimed County breached its duty when it provided “inadequate sight distance for vehicular traffic approaching from Miller Road from Cole Grade Road as well as for traffic pulling out from Miller Road onto Cole Road . . . creating a defective and dangerous condition for motorists and traffic.”   They asserted that the driver of the other vehicle was unable to see Hampton as he pulled out from Miller Road onto Cole Road and Hampton was unable to see the other driver when the driver approached the intersection while driving on Cole Road.

County filed a motion for summary judgment and/or adjudication asserting that the affirmative defense of design immunity applied and barred the Hamptons’ claims against it.  County asserted it approved plans to improve the intersection at issue in 1995 and construction began on the improvements in 1998.  County provided the declaration of licensed engineer, Robert Goralka (“Goralka”), who stated he is the traffic engineer for County.  A 1989 Road Review recommended lowering the crest on Cole Grade Road south of the Miller Road intersection to obtain additional sight distance at the intersection.  The “Plans for Construction of Cole Grade/Miller Road Interim Intersection Improvements” (“Plans”) were signed by David Solomon (“Solomon”), who served as Deputy County Engineer and is a licensed civil engineer and traffic engineer.  Goralka stated the Plans were reasonable and that “[t]he configuration of the intersection shown in the plans provided adequate operational sight distance for a driver who creeps forward from the limit line.”  He also concluded “that the operational sight distance provided between the westbound Miller Road and northbound Cole grade Road [was] adequate.”  

The Hamptons argued that County failed to establish as a matter of law the elements of the defense of design immunity.  They also argued that County’s failure to maintain the intersection at issue changed conditions and precluded the application of the defense.  The Hamptons provided the declaration of Edwards Stevens (“Stevens”), a licensed civil engineer, to support their claims and dispute County’s defense of design immunity.  The trial court granted County’s motion for summary judgment.

Decision

The court of appeal upheld the decision of the trial court finding that the Hamptons’ claims were barred by the affirmative defense of design immunity.  In order to establish the defense of design immunity, a public entity must show “(1) a causal relationship between the plan or design and the accident; (2) discretionary approval of the plan or design prior to construction; and (3) substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the plan or design.”  The Hamptons did not dispute the existence of a causal relationship between the Plans and the accident and the court found that County met its burden to prove the remaining two elements of the defense.

County satisfied the discretionary approval element by presenting evidence that Solomon, a licensed civil and traffic engineer who worked for County, approved the Plans prior to the construction of the improvements related to the intersection.  It also presented evidence that Solomon had “discretionary authority to approve the Plans and that after construction, County’s licensed engineer approved and signed as built plans.  The court concluded “[t]his evidence demonstrates the discretionary approval element as a matter of law.” 

The Hamptons argued that two cases support the proposition that, where there is evidence that a design violated the public entity’s own standards, the public entity cannot establish the discretionary approval element “unless it shows that the engineer who approved the plans (1) knew it was substandard, (2) elected to disregard that standard, and (3) had the authority to do so.”  The court disagreed with the prior case law to the extent that the cases suggested that when a public entity attempts to establish the discretionary approval element, it “must establish an exercise of informed discretion, and that evidence that the public entity failed to adhere to standards pertaining to an element of a design plan constitutes evidence of a lack of discretionary approval of the design.”  The court found that Government Code section 830.6, which codifies the design immunity defense, “does not contain any requirement of informed discretion.”  The court also concluded that section 830.6 does not require the public entity to present “evidence demonstrating that the design conformed to relevant standards.”  Instead, section 830.6 “provides that the discretionary element may be established either by evidence of appropriate discretionary approval or evidence that the plan conformed with previously approved standards."

County also satisfied the third element by presenting substantial evidence that supported the reasonableness of the Plans.  “In order to be considered substantial, the evidence must be of solid value, which reasonably inspires confidence.”  A trial court must determine whether any reasonable public official could have approved the design that is being challenged.  If there is substantial evidence to support the reasonableness of the plan, “immunity applies even if the plaintiff has presented evidence that the design was defective.”  Also, if reasonable minds could differ about whether the design should have been approved, the public entity is entitled to immunity. 

The fact that the Plans were approved by a licensed civil and traffic engineer supported a finding of reasonableness.  Goralka’s declaration stating that the Plans were reasonable was further evidence of the reasonableness of the Plans.  The court noted that, ordinarily, a civil engineer’s opinion as to the reasonableness of design is substantial evidence to support a design immunity defense.  The court of appeal found that the trial court properly concluded that County met the third element of the defense of design immunity because there was substantial evidence in the record that the Plans were reasonable.

The trial court also properly granted summary judgment on the Hamptons’ assertion that changed circumstances resulted in a loss of design immunity.  In order to show loss of design immunity, the Hamptons were required to produce evidence to raise a triable issue of fact to show that County’s plan or design had become dangerous due to change in physical conditions, County had either actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition, and it had a reasonable time to obtain funds to remedy the condition or was unable to remedy the condition due to impossibility or lack of funds.

The Hamptons argued that additional foliage on an embankment further limited sight distance looking south from Miller Road.  The court found that it was undisputed that the embankment did not impede operational sight distance at the spot on the road at issue regardless of whether there was overgrowth and the Hamptons failed to show any triable issue of fact as to whether changed conditions resulted in County losing its design immunity.

Topics:  Affirmative Defenses, Car Accident, Design Defects, Governmental Immunity, Immunity, Roads

Published In: Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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