Trustee of Property is not Liable for an Injury that Occurs on the Property When Trustee is not Personally at Fault

A California Court of Appeal ruled recently that a trustee of a property, where an injury occurred, cannot be found liable for the injury in the absence of a showing that the trustee was personally at fault for causing the injury.

The dispute in Castellon v. U.S. Bancorp (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 2 Dist., October 23, 2013), began when Yanira Garcia Ramirez Castellon (“Castellon”) fell on concrete steps outside her rented detached garage after not turning on a light at the top of the stairs.  Castellon claimed she could not find the switch.  The property was owned by the Villalobos Settlement Trust ("Trust"), for which U.S. Bancorp ("Bancorp") was trustee.  Castellon sued Bancorp in its personal capacity, and as trustee of the Trust, for negligence and premises liability claiming the steps on which she fell constituted a dangerous condition.  The trial court granted summary judgment for Bancorp and Castellon appealed.

The undisputed evidence showed that the Trust, not Bancorp, owned the property at the time of the accident.  Also, there was a functioning light at the top of the stairs that Castellon herself failed to turn on, claiming she could not find the switch.  In addition, immediately after her accident, another resident on the main property turned the light on.  Having failed to turn on the light, Castellon chose to exit in the dark and fell.

The court ruled there was no evidence that Bancorp was "personally at fault" for Castellon's fall and it could not, as trustee, be held liable for negligence.  The court quoted Probate Code Section 18001: "A trustee is personally liable for obligations arising from ownership or control of the trust property only if the trustee is personally at fault."  Further, Section 18002 adds: "A trustee is personally liable for torts committed in the course of administration of the trust only if the trustee is personally at fault."  Thus, the appellate court affirmed that the Trust could not be held liable for Castellon's injuries because it was not "personally at fault.”

Similarly, Castellon failed to establish premises liability because she failed to show evidence of a dangerous condition on the property.  Castellon claimed the dangerous condition was inadequate lighting, but in fact there was a functioning light at the top of the stairs on which she exited that another resident turned on immediately after her fall.

Castellon failed to show any triable issue regarding Bancorp's being “personally at fault” for negligence or the existence of a dangerous condition.  The granting of summary judgment to Bancorp was correct and the judgment was affirmed. 

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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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