California Supreme Court Raises the Bar on Dangerous Conditions on Public Property Claims

by Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean LLP
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Earlier we wrote about the affirmative defense of “design immunity” which can be used by public entities to shield themselves from personal injury claims dangerous conditions on public property. Under the design immunity doctrine a public entity can avoid liability for dangerous conditions on public property if it can 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.

In that post we discussed a case decided this past August by the California Court of Appeals for the Second District – Castro v. City of Thousand Oaks – in which the Court of Appeals held that a city ordinance giving its engineer “discretionary authority” to approve a plan or design (as opposed to approval by the public entity’s governing board) did not satisfy the “discretionary approval” element of the design immunity doctrine.

Castro may have just been one of the shortest lived cases in appellate court history, however. Just three months later, in Hampton v. County of San Diego, Case No. S213132 (December 10, 2015), the California Supreme Court, while not directly discussing Castro at all,  held that the “discretionary approval” element of the design immunity doctrine was satisfied where a county engineer with discretionary authority approved plans for a roadway project even though the plans deviated from applicable local design standards.

Background

In 2009, Randall Keith Hampton was seriously injured in a collision between his vehicle and another at the intersection of Miller and Cole Grade Roads in San Diego County. Hampton alleged that the accident occurred when he was attempting to make a left turn from Miller Road when he was struck by a car driving down Cole Grade Road.

The Embankment

In a complaint later filed by Hampton against the County of San Diego (“County”), Hampton alleged that the design and construction of the intersection where the accident occurred afforded inadequate visibility under the County’s design standards because a high embankment covered by vegetation impaired visibility for drivers turning left from Miller Road onto Cole Grade Road. According to Hampton, the County’s design drawings did not describe or depict the embankment or take it into account as an impediment to visibility, did not identify the sight distance a driver in Hampton’s position would have, and did not afford the visibility required by County standards.

The County moved for summary judgment and asserted the design immunity doctrine which was granted by the trial court. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth District affirmed the judgment, and the California Supreme Court granted review.

The California Supreme Court Decision

On review, the California Supreme Court explained that government liability is governed by the Government Claims Act (“Act”), which provides for liability on the part of public entities for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on property where the condition “created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred” and either an employee’s negligence or wrongful act or omission caused the dangerous condition or the entity was on “actual or constructive notice” of the condition in time to have taken preventative measures.

Nevertheless, explained the California Supreme Court, a public entity may still prevail against such a claim by means of the affirmative defense of design immunity provided under Government Code section 830.6 which provides in pertinent part:

Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable under this chapter for an injury caused by the plan or design of a construction of, or an improvement to, public property where such plan or design has been approved in advance of the construction or improvement by the legislative body of the public entity or by some other body or employee exercising discretionary authority to give such approval or where such plan or design is prepared in conformity with standards previously so approved, if the trial or appellate court determines that there is a substantial evidence upon the basis of which (a) a reasonable public employee could have adopted the plan or design or the standards therefor or (b) a reasonable legislative body or other body or employee could have approved the plan or design or the standards thereof.

“Discretionary approval,” however, argued Hampton, requires an exercise of discretion where an employee is aware of the governing standards applying to a design and makes an informed decision to approve a design despite its nonconformity with governing standards. By contrast, where an employee approves a nonconforming design on the mistaken belief that it conforms to governing standards, the employee has acted through inadvertence, not discretion.

The California Supreme Court, however, disagreed.  The Supreme Court rationalized that one of the policies behind the design immunity doctrine is to avoid the dangers of a jury reweighing the same factors a public entity already considered during the approval process:

The [Act’s] purpose is to avoid the dangers involved in permitting re-examination and second-guessing of governmental design decisions in the context of a trial: “While it is proper to hold public entities liable for injuries caused by arbitrary abuses of discretionary authority in planning improvements, to permit reexamination in tort litigation of particular discretionary decisions where reasonable men may differ as to how the discretion should be exercised would create too great a danger of impolitic interference with the freedom of decision-making by those public officials in whom the function of making such decisions has been vested.”

Indeed, explained the California Supreme Court “once causation and approval by an authorized employee or compliance with appropriately adopted standards is established, there is immunity, so long as ‘the trial or appellate court determines that there  is any substantial evidence upon the basis of which (a) a reasonable public employee could have adopted the plan or design or the standards therefore or (b) a reasonable legislative body or other body or employee could have approved the plan or design of standards therefore.'”

Conclusion

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Hampton has set a high bar for claims alleging dangerous conditions on public property.  So long as there is any substantial evidence upon which a reasonable employee or legislative body could have adopted and approved a plan or design, the design immunity doctrine will shield a public entity from claims alleging dangerous conditions on public property.

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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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