Supreme Court Approves Public Entity Design Immunity Defense

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Randall Keith Hampton, et al. v. County of San Diego

Supreme Court of California
(December 10, 2015)

In California, a public entity can be liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions of public property – including roads.  However, the public entity may sidestep liability by asserting design immunity.  In order to successfully assert this defense, three elements must be proven:  (1) there is causal relationship between the design and the accident; (2) the entity made a discretionary approval of the design; and (3) substantial evidence supports the reasonableness of the plan, as discussed in Government Code § 830.6.

In Hampton v. County of San Diego, the Court addressed the second element, concluding that the discretionary approval element “does not implicate the question whether the employee who approved the plans was aware of design standards or was aware that the design deviated from those standards.”  The public entity is not required to prove in its case that the employee who made the discretionary approval had authority to disregard applicable design standards.  The Court’s discussion is a broad affirmation of the discretionary approval provided by a qualified official (often a design engineer) of a reasonable design.

In Hampton, the plaintiff was injured in a collision between his vehicle, which was attempting a left turn, and another vehicle on a two-lane thoroughfare.  The claim against the County, a public entity, was that the design and construction of the intersection where the accident occurred afforded inadequate visibility and failed to meet applicable county design standards because it did not describe, depict or account for an embankment along the thoroughfare that impaired visibility.  The County presented evidence that the design standards contemplated that drivers would “creep forward” after stopping at the stop line to improve visibility before making a turn, thus eliminating the impairment caused by the embankment.

The County moved for summary judgment.  Plaintiff contested whether the County had met the requirements for discretionary approval because the design did not depict the embankment and visibility did not meet county standards.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the County, and the appellate court affirmed.  The Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that, in evaluating discretionary approval, trial courts are not to consider whether the approving engineer was aware of design standards or that the design in question met those standards.  The rationale for this lies with the legislative intent of avoiding having a jury re-examine and second-guess governmental design decisions at trial.  Allowing such a re-examination would defeat the purpose of the design immunity, i.e., giving the jury the power to make its own decisions where public officials have been vested with authority to act.

For both legal and practical reasons, a trial court can consider whether the approving official, knowingly or unknowingly, approved the plans under the third element — the reasonableness of the design.  On a practical point, the Court recognized that the reasons and motivation of the approving official would likely be unavailable, as design immunity defenses often occur many years after approval, forcing the entity to rely on distant memories.  Furthermore, the allegation that the officials applied the wrong standard does not divest an entity of a discretionary choice, but goes to the reasonableness of the design.

COMMENT

For public entities, this case serves two purposes.  First, it is a strong affirmation and endorsement of design immunity.  The Court’s approval signaled that the public entity’s deliberative process and decision making is not open to interpretation and second-guessing by the jury.  Second, the design immunity defense is only available if the entity has design plans and as-built plans that reflect what was actually constructed, and plans show that there was discretionary approval by the entity.

For a copy of the complete decision, see:

Hampton et al. v. County of San Diego

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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