Weekly Law Resume - October 2013: Torts – Public Entities - Immunity For Natural Conditions

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Meddock v. County of Yolo
California Third District Court of Appeal (October 4, 2013)

There are certain sections of the Government Code that provide immunities to public entities as a matter of public policy. This case considered the extent of immunity for natural conditions under Government Code § 831.2

On March 21, 2009, plaintiff Dwight Meddock was on a paved parking lot in a park along the Sacramento River. He was there to go boating. Trees lined the river. Many of those trees leaned away from the river and over the parking lot, and some of the trees were diseased.

While in the parking lot, one of the diseased trees fell on him.

Meddock sued the County of Yolo for personal injuries. In its Answer to the Complaint, the County pled Section 831.2 as an affirmative defense. The provision states, in full: “[n]either a public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused by a natural condition of any unimproved public property, including but not limited to any natural condition of any lake, stream, bay river or beach.”

The County moved for summary judgment based on Section 831.2, and the trial court granted it. Meddock appealed.

The Court’s ruling turned upon the meaning of Section 831.2. Meddock argued that for the immunity to apply, the injury must also occur on unimproved property. Because his injury occurred on improved property (the paved parking lot) Meddock argued that Section 831.2 was inapplicable.

The Third District Court of Appeal firmly rejected this argument. “Because Meddock’s injuries were caused by decaying trees located on unimproved property, the County is immune from liability.” In reaching this conclusion, the appellate court meticulously reviewed (1) the rules for statutory construction; (2) the history of Section 831.2 immunity; (3) appellate and Supreme Court precedent; and (4) the public policy for public land-related immunities. All supported the Court’s ruling

COMMENT

When a provision contains straightforward language -- such as “an injury caused by a natural condition” -- a party cannot read his/her own meaning into it. The opinion also affirms the scope of Section 831.2 immunity. As long as the injury is caused by a natural condition of unimproved property, regardless of where the injury occurs, immunity will apply.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/C070262.PDF

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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