Dangerous Condition, Dangerous Precedent: California Supreme Court Expands Scope of Dangerous Condition Liability Involving Third Party Negligent/Criminal Conduct

by Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP
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In Cordova v. City of Los Angeles (filed 8/13/15, Case No. S208130), the California Supreme Court held a government entity is not categorically immune from liability where the plaintiff alleges a dangerous condition of public property caused the plaintiff’s injury, but did not cause the third party conduct which precipitated the accident.

The case arises out of a traffic collision by which the negligent driving of a third party motorist caused another car to careen into a tree planted in the center median owned and maintained by the City of Los Angeles (“City”). Of the four occupants in the car that collided with the tree, three died and the fourth was badly injured. The parents of two of the occupants sued the City for a dangerous condition of public property under Government Code Section 835. The plaintiffs alleged the roadway was in a dangerous condition because the trees in the median were too close to the traveling portion of the road, posing an unreasonable risk of harm to motorists who might lose control of their vehicles.

The City successfully moved for summary judgment, which plaintiffs appealed. On review, the Court of Appeal affirmed holding the tree was not a dangerous condition as a matter of law because there was no evidence that the tree had contributed to the criminally negligent driving of the third party motorist.

Plaintiffs petitioned the California Supreme Court which granted review to address the specific issue of whether a government entity may be held liable where it is alleged that a dangerous condition existed and caused the plaintiff’s injuries, but not that the condition caused the third party conduct that led to the accident.

Answering this question in the affirmative, the Supreme Court distinguished the issue of whether a dangerous condition exists from the issue of whether the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition. These are two separate requirements that must both be met when asserting government liability under Government Code Section 835. The Court then went one step further to explain that there is nothing in the statute that requires plaintiffs to establish the allegedly dangerous condition also caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.

In expanding on this holding, the Supreme Court analyzed a series of relevant case law concerning the issue of dangerous condition liability when third party conduct is involved, most heavily relying on Ducey v. Argo Sales Co. (1979) 25 Cal.3d 707. In Ducey, the court held the state could be liable for failing to provide a median barrier on the freeway where the absence of such a barrier contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries when a third party driver crossed the median colliding with the plaintiff’s vehicle.

In sum, the Supreme Court clarified that its ruling did not stand for the proposition that a public entity may be held liable whenever a plaintiff is injured as a result of a third party’s conduct which causes the plaintiff to collide with a hard, fixed object on public property. Rather, where plaintiffs can demonstrate that the article at issue constitutes a dangerous condition which proximately caused the injuries suffered and that the condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of that kind of injury, nothing in Government Code Section 835 forbids imposition of liability on the governmental entity simply because a third party’s conduct may have caused other injuries to plaintiffs.

This case is significant because it holds that even when a third party’s negligent or criminal conduct actually caused the accident at issue, if a governmental entity owned a condition that was involved in causing plaintiff’s injuries, it may still be held liable. It is thus imperative for public entities defending such lawsuits to identify exactly what it is that the plaintiff is alleging constitutes the dangerous condition and how that condition supposedly was the proximate cause of the injuries.

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